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Review: Finding oneself in 'Elsewhere, California'

Dana Johnson's first novel explores the space between reinvention and ruin through the eyes of the child of African Americans who migrated from the South to L.A.

June 10, 2012|By Lynell George, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Dana Johnson.
Author Dana Johnson. (Counterpoint )

Elsewhere, California

A Novel

Dana Johnson

Counterpoint: 270 pp., $15.95 paper

When hasn't California been a cure? Either a plan B or C — or the "fix." Fit within that reinvention story, Los Angeles in particular often figures as the white-hot destination: the place where the greatest transformation might take place. Though that gamble may bestow great dividends, too many discover that the odds more likely suggest the delivery of punishing, irrecoverable loss.

Dana Johnson's first novel, "Elsewhere, California," explores the space between reinvention and ruin — the freighted pause waiting for resolution.

Woven into this familiar there-to-here narrative is an infrequently voiced twist — the journey told from the point of view of daughters and sons of African American parents who caught the tail wind of the Great Migration out of the South and into the noisy mix of Greater Los Angeles.

The there-to-here story in Avery's case might as well be a tale of immigrating to another country. Customs, language, values (and with them unexpressed expectations) are a minefield to be negotiated and conquered.

Johnson finesses this undertold story with grace, sensitivity and nuance. Not just the exterior land-of-opportunity-story arc but also the interior struggle toward a newly framed identity: race remixed. Johnson constructs her story around the generation that grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s and came of age in the 1980s — the embodiment of the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. A looming question — What is gained and what is lost in that transaction? — lay at the heart of "Elsewhere, California."

When we meet Johnson's protagonist, Avery Arlington, an emerging African American artist (she's a painter who has drifted into assemblage work), she's recently turned 40 but is still piecing together her own life — and a sense of her place in it. She's spent a lifetime slipping in and out of identities, a veritable color wheel of blackness mixed with proximity to otherness. You can feel her deep fatigue in the utterance: "I was already negotiating the twists and turns of the people and personalities I could be to anyone at any given time, so kindness and gentleness, what good were those things to me?"

Though she is settled in a relationship with a successful lawyer, Massimo, an up-from-nothing Italian immigrant with whom she lives in a glass-and-steel showplace high in Beachwood Canyon, Avery continues to erect walls, obscuring her core … even to herself.

The conceit on which the book turns is her journey to unlock the why, a peeling of layers. She entrusts a hypnotist who helps her travel to childhood — the building blocks. At first, it might seem like an awkward "La La Land" contrivance, but it allows Johnson to tap into Avery's childhood "voice," literally her changing language and consequently her id.

Avery's recovered memory sets us down at the moment the Arlingtons are once again decamping. West 80th Street in southwestern Los Angeles has become a minefield of gang-circumscribed boundaries and drive-by violence. Their next stop — West Covina — though only half an hour away, might as well be another planet. And, as young Avery notes in a voice that's still under the sway of her parents' Tennessee inflection, "[A]fter awhile L.A. start looking different. Dont see no trash in the street, no liquor stores" and soon they are on the highway headed east. "I see hills … and these flowers … and cows.… How come I never seen this before if its so close?"

West Covina is not just culture shock but also a seismic event. In every way, Avery can't seem to rest easy: In her skin, in her body, in her head. Neither her femininity nor her blackness fits prescribed definitions. She pushes out of those assumptions — not because she's a rebel but because she just can't bear how narrow and uncomfortable they seem.

Johnson, an assistant professor of English at USC, first introduced readers to Avery in "Break Any Woman Down," a collection of stories that won theFlannery O'ConnorShort Fiction Award in 2001. Although the novel fills in Avery's back story, it also exhibits Johnson's fearlessness. She goes deep into territory often simplified or sidestepped entirely — the "limbo" of elusive identity, of something that flummoxes or embarrasses. She's not just questioning what "blackness" is but whiteness — and otherness — and all that lie beneath it. Consequently, Avery's evolution — a black woman trying to claim her place — is as heartbreaking as it is humorous, powerful as it is poignant, because Johnson so assertively confronts those complexities.

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