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BOOKS & IDEAS

A fertile moonscape for a writer's fiction

Marisa Silver's resilient characters find reasons to believe just off the Salton Sea's barren shores.

June 08, 2008|Marc Weingarten | Special to The Times

"You take where you are for granted. Ares only knows what he sees on TV because he hasn't been anywhere else," Silver said. "But he's reached a point in his life where his mind is starting to open up. Suddenly, you realize that there are choices you can make, and that your parents aren't telling you the whole story. I find that to be a very poignant time for a kid."

Survival skills

IN LYRICAL and evocative prose, Silver traces Ares' path toward emotional self-sufficiency across the barren topography of the Salton Sea and its environs. Everyone in the book, in fact, is fumbling toward some fleeting chance at intimacy, and failing miserably at it. But this isn't a finger-wagging morality play; it speaks to Silver's empathetic skill as a novelist that even the most flawed characters in the book aren't demonized.

'When I was a kid I worked on a documentary about a Hare Krishna commune, and the children were just as isolated as Ares," said Silver, who began her creative life as a filmmaker. "It's easy for us to cast aspersions on parents who impose their own belief systems on their children, but most parents have the best of intentions, for better or worse. It's both the folly and the beauty of parenting."

Silver paid the tab for her tea -- $1 -- and drove past some of the strange signposts of the region en route back to Bombay Beach. On the left side of the road was something that appeared to be a missile silo, but it might also have been some Robert Smithson-esque art installation; it was hard to tell. There are no signs of life anywhere along this route, not even a passing car. "There's a lot of ordnance out there," said Silver. "The military used this area as a testing ground for artillery." The sea, utterly still and creepy, loomed in the distance.

Back at Bombay Beach, Silver walked to the water. Thousands of dead tilapia fish lined the shore; the smell was rank and overwhelming. "The birds eat the fish and then they die too," Silver commented. Just inland, Silver spotted something that pleased her. It was a stretch of beach that has been fissured by the sun, creating an effect that Silver likened to "the skin of a giraffe." There was an abandoned jeep resembling the rotting skeleton of a large jungle animal; a picnic bench had sunk into the sand, leaving only its table-top exposed. "There's something beautiful about that," said Silver.

The Salton Sea is such a sui generis environment that it's remarkable more novelists haven't tapped into it. In fact, the entire corpus of literature devoted to the California desert, and by extension the greater Inland Empire, is relatively small. Novelist Susan Straight has used Riverside as her own Yoknapatawpha County, referring to it in her fiction as "Rio Seco." But Straight, whom Silver admires, is a California native. Silver is a New York transplant whose Upper East Side childhood couldn't have been more different than Ares'. And yet she is compelled to probe the neglected or otherwise maligned regions of Southern California, if only because she thinks they deserve a fair shake.

In order to research "The God of War," Silver made multiple trips here, talking to people and watching the landscape. "Mostly, I would just stand here, and try to imagine what my characters would feel about the land. Ares doesn't know any better, so this is normal to him."

That's why Silver prizes an otherwise forgotten place like the Salton Sea; she sees it as a successful experiment in what she calls "human ecology." "I mean, look at this plant," she said, while tenderly fingering the leaf of a lonely scrub. "It doesn't take much for it to grow. The land finds a foothold." This is what the characters in "The God of War" are looking for: a little, just a little, nurturing to make them thrive.

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