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As Usual, It's California's Fault

May 26, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

CALIFORNIA FAULT: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas by Thurston Clarke (Ballantine Books, $24).

Move over, Alexis de Tocqueville. When Thurston Clarke makes the UFO-earthquake connection halfway through "Fault," he elevates himself to the first rank of America's social observers.

OK, Clarke's neglect of Elvis sightings may be a flaw, but he doesn't miss much in this combination travelogue, history lesson and cultural meditation. The basic conceit is shrewd: The state's subterranean strains, stresses and earthquakes both mirror and fuel the social upheavals above ground.

The UFO revelation comes during the Santa Cruz portion of Clarke's journey, which traced the 750-mile San Andreas Fault from Eureka to the Salton Sea. Something about the combination of stressed rock, static electricity and "spherical luminous displays" finally makes Clarke wonder "if California has more cults, fanatics and UFO believers than anywhere else, not because of its climate, geography and unusual history, but because it simply has more people living near active faults."

He certainly has innumerable close encounters of the oddball kind. The kooks, crooks and curmudgeons he meets believe in everything from a Toys R Us ghost to a geyser that predicts earthquakes. Remarkably, Clarke treats most of these characters with great respect, as if each were an equally important piece of the California mosaic. Equally amazing, in this age of ego-spewing writers, he finds the facts of the journey far more important than any personal epiphanies he may have had during it.

Clarke's use of history complements his travels superbly. Here's a wonderful bit about the town of Bolinas that reveals a lot about the psyche of the state: "The Bolinas timber boom was so furious that its frustrated gold-miners-turned-lumberjacks silted up the lagoon in three years. When an egg craze gripped San Francisco, they sailed to the Farallon Islands in small boats, gathering as many as 120,000 gull eggs in a single boat in two days and selling them for a dollar a dozen.

Prospectors drilled oil wells on the beach in 1865, and a copper boom left behind so many shafts they became a hazard to wandering cattle. . . The 1873 coal bust left a 325-foot-high hill of tailings. The 1874 trout boom left fishponds along the lagoon. The 1934 ambergris boom closed Bolinas schools for a day so students could collect bucket loads of this valuable whale secretion. (Experts later proclaimed it 'sewage butter' spewed from a passing ship or the Oakland treatment plant.)"

Clarke spends much of his trip in the company of good-hearted Quixotes, tilting at the forces of greed and commercialism. In them he finds remnants of the California Dream, and sees hope in a society shaking itself to rubble.

ARCHITECTURAL FOLLIES IN AMERICA: An Illustrated Guide to 130 of the Most Unusual Structures in America by Gwyn Headley (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, paperback, photos).

For Gwyn Headley, "folly" is not a derogatory word. In fact she has a real fondness for follies. "Follies stem from passion, obsession, suspicion," she writes. "We should respect them, for there is more humanity to be found in folly than in a century of common sense." One man's folly is another's visionary triumph.

Thus we find San Francisco's Coit Tower, L.A.'s Watts Towers and Death Valley's Scotty's Castle among the idiosyncratic constructions discussed in this highly browseable guide. The buildings are categorized under imaginative headings such as "Scrap Shacks," "Solemn Temples" and "Replicas, Copies, and the Seven Wonders of the World."

In this latter group--the imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery category--can be found such things as a medieval Sienese tower in Watertown, Conn., a Leaning Tower of Pisa in Niles, Ill., or a "Thousand and One Nights"--styled city hall in Opa-locka, Fla. While some of the buildings are less benign follies ("bottle houses" and a hideous geodesic dome house in Arizona), many are so imaginative and capricious they might well provide modern architects with some inspiration.

INFAMOUS MANHATTAN: A Colorful Walking History of New York's Most Notorious Crime Sites by Andrew Roth (Citadel Press, $14.95, maps, paperback).

Eight walking tours through the Big Apple's rotten past. From the first recorded murder (1638) near what is now the Custom House to the Stonewall Inn gay revolt in Greenwich Village to a host of other moments of mayhem.

A wonderfully macabre guide. Even if you're not planning to track down any of these sites, it's fun to thumb through. Filled with intriguing lists ("Top Ten Mob Hits," "Notable Riots"); impressive research. Includes a guide to restaurants and bars with shady pasts.

FORD'S FREIGHTER TRAVEL GUIDE AND WATERWAYS OF THE WORLD, edited by Judith A. Howard (Ford's Travel Guides, $15.95, paperback).

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