Writers who attempt to capture Southern California in fiction must contend with the ghosts of those who preceded them, whether the long shadows of Raymond Chandler's mean L.A. streets, James M. Cain's love-gone-wrong Glendale or the morally bankrupt Hollywood of Nathanael West and Joan Didion. But the farther one gets from L.A.'s literary epicenter, the fewer voices are heard -- and the clearer one's own becomes. In Southern California's geographical margins can be heard Yxta Maya Murray's tough-talking Eastside Chicanas, Kem Nunn's losers from the far-flung reaches of the region's underbelly or Susan Straight's diverse voices singing from the fictional Inland Empire town of Rio Seco.
In a relatively short career, novelist Peter Craig has managed to work many of Southern California's literary neighborhoods. His first novel, the comical "The Martini Shot," took on Hollywood in the tale of an estranged son coming to terms with his father, an aging, boozing movie star. His second, "Hot Plastic," featuring a father and son grifting their way across the country in the 1980s, owed much to hard-boiled genre writers such as Cain and Jim Thompson. In "Blood Father," Craig has gone farther afield, both stylistically and geographically, with the story of Lydia Carson, a meth-head San Fernando Valley child of the '90s whose chaotic life comes to a crashing halt when she, her drug dealer boyfriend, Jonah, and some members of his crew invade the home of one of Jonah's downstream dealers. Jonah, a smooth talker with ties to a wealthy family, seduces Lydia, stroking her cheek and massaging her back while holding a gun to her face and demanding she show her devotion by shooting on the dealer's wife. "From the day I met you, you wanted to know everything," he whispers. "Well, here it is. ... [C]ross that line, baby, and I'll be right here on the other side, waiting for you." Instead of playing Susan Atkins to Jonah's Charles Manson, Lydia shoots Jonah and escapes from his foot soldiers -- guys with names like Choop and Cully -- who will do anything to make her pay for her betrayal.
Afraid to contact her judgmental mother or any of her numerous former stepfathers, Lydia calls her "blood father," middle-aged ex-con John Link, possessor of a bad attitude, a beer belly, arms "sleeved with tattoos" and not much else. Prohibited by the terms of his parole from fraternizing with his Hells Angels buddies, Link lives alone on the outskirts of society, offering fine-art tattoos to down-and-out neighbors. "In this clutter of trailers, scrap tin, and corrugated titanium awnings," the author observes, "Link had soldered his life back together with God and cigarettes."
But Lydia's plea makes Link recall his old life, told in fevered flashbacks, and his relationship with Lydia's mother, Ursula, the product of the "Pink Ghettoes," a shabby cluster of stucco apartments in the San Diego County town of Lakeside. Ursula wasn't much older than Lydia when she met the 32-year-old Link at a Hells Angels party and began a strangely symbiotic relationship that eventually disintegrated under the weight of the Angels' petty jealousies and drunken brawls, but not before producing Lydia, whose birth startles Link into a touching yet misguided sense of responsibility that lands him in more trouble than he can handle and, finally, in Imperial County's Calipatria State Prison.
Prison and bitterness estrange Link for a decade from the daughter he so desperately loves. He feels honor-bound to help the teenager when she calls, frightened out of what few wits she has left. As Lydia's semi-coherent story unfolds on their ride from the beach to the Coachella Valley and in the days afterward, father and daughter form a bickering, tentative bond that is sorely tested as they try to outrun both the cops and the vengeful thugs out to wreak havoc on Link's meager life and hard-won friendships. As adept as the author is at depicting violence and the postmodern desert-outlaw culture -- a shoot-out in Link's trailer and the pair's final encounter with Jonah's crew are two of many standout examples -- it is Craig's continuing exploration of difficult family relationships that gives "Blood Father" its vivid, pulsing heart and make him a writer to watch. *