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Earth, Wind and Fire : A Californian takes on the state, for better or worse : THE SEVEN STATES OF CALIFORNIA: A Human and Natural History, By Philip Fradkin (Henry Holt: $30.00; 474 pp.)

October 08, 1995|Dan Duane | Duane is the author Lighting Out, A Vision of California and the Mountains" (Graywolf). His forthcoming book is "Caught Inside, A Surfer's Year on the California Coast (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Personally, I'd hate trying to explain California, but Philip Fradkin's new book, "The Seven States of California," sets out to do just that. Seven lovely landscape photographs may grace the dust jacket, "natural history" may be in the subtitle, and the preface may give a primer on how landscape influences culture, but this book is far from an ode to a beloved place.

Fradkin takes on everything from Hollywood to Humboldt fishermen and his tone rarely lapses from that of a grim homicide detective taking a good look at our state's bullet-riddled corpse. Indeed, Fradkin initially wanted to write a racial history of California, presumably of racial violence and oppression; his editor at Holt preferred a book organized around landscape. Fradkin does dutifully split the state into seven regions, and even anchor's each chapter with the natural history of a regional feature (an earthquake fault, a mountain pass), but while he makes good drama out of dry material like plate tectonics, volcanism and drought cycles, Fradkin's real passion lies in the dark side of California's human past.

Overall, Fradkin puts together a delightful array of anecdotes, mini-biographies and local histories, and despite lapses into high camp ("Fear stalked the land"), it makes great reading. Part of the book's pleasure, however, lies in Fradkin's taste for spectacle and lurid horror, for the newsworthy. The very earth does violence through floods, fires and quakes, the lava beds of Modoc County are the "geography of war," and the Humboldt wind delivers "the type of constant barrage, along with the sea pounding the headland, that wore a person, a piece of wood, a rock, and even plastic down to a nub, a grain, and then nothing."

As a journalist, environmental bureaucrat and university professor, Fradkin's commitment to California is undeniable, but his bleak view can get distracting. Donner Pass makes a great anchoring feature for the "Sierra" chapter in that it sees most of the human transit over the range (and lets him talk about cannibalism, an admittedly delicious topic), but something's amiss when Fradkin's visit to John Muir's Range of Light amounts to how "The vehicular movement was incessant on this windless, hot day. The fumes soiled the mountain air and made me nauseated. I was fortunate, I thought, to have entered California via a different route and at a different time."

Fortunate how? Because it kept a youthful illusion intact? Because all the good stuff is gone now? Why not take one of the smaller passes, or walk a hundred yards from the automobile? I'm being defensive--I happen to be crazy about those mountains--and Fradkin's ailment is a common Californian one: So many of us feel that our own early years in California were the last, best years the state will ever see. Still, while the wholesale paving of paradise hurts, and even Yosemite mid-summer tends to look more like a smoggy beach carnival than an alpine retreat, I-80 makes a peculiar Sierra synecdoche: It's quite literally the only strip of that entire, glorious range of granite, snow and Sequoia with a full-scale freeway running through it.

The "Deserts" chapter gives us nuclear weapons labs, the cryptic ramblings of Charles Manson, and introduces Fradkin's theory of history: In his otherwise fascinating account of Indian earth etchings, he writes that, "The figures, lines, circles and mazes remain silent, as silent as the artifacts of our civilization will be thousands of years from now." Along with the bloody Modoc war and the internment of Japanese civilians, "The Land of Fire" offers Mount Shasta as a magnet for UFO obsessions and screwball New Age myths, such as the legend of Lemuria, a Pacific version of Atlantis whose white-cloaked survivors are said to reside inside the snow-capped volcano. In northwestern California, Fradkin conjures well the amazement of Spanish explorers, the slaughter of local Indians and the quick and greedy depletion of timber and fishing stocks.

"The Fractured Province" chapter indulges in the madness of a Marin serial killer and spices up the San Andreas Fault with a lovely retelling of James Dean's fateful car crash ("A California life, a California death, a California life after death"). The last and longest chapter, and the one I found most compelling, is that on Los Angeles. From Fradkin's close scrapes while covering the Watts riots to an inside look at The Los Angeles Times (his former employer), Fradkin knows this terrain cold.

His L.A., however, is the worst charnel house of all, a doomed loony bin of urban ills, and if I had any lingering doubt about Fradkin's view of the future, I lost it quickly: "As I write these words," Fradkin remarks, "in the fall of 1993, Los Angeles is burning. I have seen it before; undoubtedly it will burn again."

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