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Remembrance of hopes past

Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, Kevin Starr, Alfred A. Knopf: 768 pp., $35

September 19, 2004|Benjamin Schwarz | Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

Since 1978, Kevin Starr has been writing a monumental, multivolume history of California, Americans and the California dream. Until now, the installments have appeared in chronological order. (The last one, "Embattled Dreams," covered merely a decade -- the World War II years and their aftermath.) But in "Coast of Dreams," the USC professor of history and former state librarian has leapfrogged, producing a chronicle of the state from 1990 to 2003. The picture he adumbrates here is of a grim period and an irrecoverable dream: of catastrophic fires and floods, the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, Los Angeles' gang-banging murder spree and the nihilistic culture from which it sprang, the Rodney King beating that led to one of the worst riots in U.S. history, the ugly and farcical trial of O.J. Simpson and the perilous racial divisions it revealed, the nearly unrelieved deterioration of public services and the consequent disaffection of the state's citizenry. Most of all, it shows the loss of what Starr has defined in his six previous volumes as the promise of California.

The limitations of this more or less instant approach to history are obvious, and certainly not lost on Starr. He shuns calling this a "history," describing it instead as "a collection of snapshots and sketches ... a preliminary effort." There's no archival material from which he can draw, no diaries, no letters. Instead he perforce relies almost exclusively on newspaper accounts, from this paper predominantly. Journalists and other on-the-spot chroniclers, though, make notoriously poor historians, as they often confound the trendy and the significant, confuse the trees with the forest and miss the long-term changes that take decades to discern. But Starr, an unusually sober and reasonable scholar, has been looking at California more closely and for longer, and struggling more systematically and with greater sensitivity to grasp its meaning, than any of its other current commentators. Wisely, rather than imposing a Procrustean interpretation on the period covered, Starr uses his "cinematic collage ... to suggest the broad outlines and the complexity of a decade." This laissez-faire approach works well, owing to the volume, range and creativity of his research and to his quite astonishing organizational skills. But it inevitably means that the reader imposes his own construal on Starr's mass of evidence and impressions.

Starr's volumes are foremost social and cultural histories. Here, because he's attempting to write a comprehensive history (albeit a first draft), he minutely chronicles then-Mayor Richard J. Riordan's differences with the Los Angeles City Council, the history of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's money pit, NAFTA's effect on the state economy and the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. These accounts are characteristically fair-minded, authoritative and smooth but are too detailed to be diverting yet not detailed enough to be compelling. His observations are most vivid, precise and astute when he elucidates the way Californians live now -- the ways ethnicity and class shape manners, mores, architectural and residential preferences; how consumer and linguistic developments arise, spread and mutate; and the ways that long-term economic and social trends have both reflected and altered Californians' actual and idealized lifestyle. Starr's cultural range has always been broad and his grasp sure. Most important, he's able to put tastes and ways of life in historical context: He deftly surveys the evolution and contemporary manifestations of Southern California's surfing culture (from Bob Simmons' development of lightened boards in the 1940s to the current billion-dollar surfware industry); the varieties of the Golden State's religious experience (which encompasses Robert Schuller's telecasts from the Crystal Cathedral as well as Hollywood's infatuation with Tibetan Buddhism in the '90s); the growing gap between Hollywood's political and social values and those of the audience it purportedly serves; painters' visions of Los Angeles from Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocean Park" series to the Photorealism of John Register; and the permutations of California culinary culture -- the Francophilia of M.F.K. Fisher, the smug foodie-ism epitomized by Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and the less self-absorbed if woefully inconsistent Trader Joe's. (This reader wishes he'd have at least something to say about such middle-class eating places as California Pizza Kitchen and lavish less attention on Hawthorne Lane, Postrio and their ilk, for while Starr generally pays closer attention to Los Angeles than San Francisco, he's obviously more keyed into the restaurant scene in the Bay Area.)

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