Book Review: 'West of the West' by Mark Arax

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By Gregory Rodriguez
Sunday, May 10, 2009


Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State

By Mark Arax

PublicAffairs. 347 pp. $26.95

Mark Arax is a great reporter. He has an ear for a good story. He knows where the action is, and the remarkable level of detail he captures tells us he's as tenacious and unrelenting as the most hard-boiled noir detective. He's also clearly an obsessive character, particularly enthralled by dashed dreams and hopeless causes, and in "West of the West" -- 10 loosely knit essays and an epilogue -- it's sometimes not clear where his story ends and California's begins.

You'd figure that a writer trying to bag California would grab for the big guns and shoot directly at the Golden State's most glaring issues and overarching themes. But Arax has done exactly the opposite. He has decided to capture minor characters, moments and conflicts and dig deep within them, evidently hoping that the minutiae of any given tale will tell us something significant about the twisted soul of this giant state.

What Arax's essays ultimately do is take us on a series of extended field trips. There's the idealistic organic dairy farmer whose milk may have poisoned children, the cancer-stricken immigrant Armenian restaurant owner who murdered his sister and mother, the retired FBI agent who thinks the government is railroading a Pakistani American terror suspect, a kid named Redwood who lived for months high up in an oak grove on the Berkeley campus so the university couldn't cut the trees down. Arax successfully evades the usual tropes about California being the land of either dreams or nightmares. Instead, his essays paint an impressionistic landscape of a land of frustration.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter, Arax mentions that he's recently divorced. A few pages later, he writes that after leaving his job at the Los Angeles Times, he found himself sifting through old notebooks and finding old friends. As I read his essays, I sometimes imagined the writer wading through these notebooks late at night, perhaps with a beer in hand, trying to stitch together a coherent narrative of a life that had gone off course. In the epilogue, we learn about the tragedy that makes Arax tick, the horrible event that honed his investigative skills as a journalist. When Mark was 15 years old, his father, Ara Arax, was murdered. Decades later, out of a compulsion to solve his father's murder, he spent seven years writing a book on the subject. This is what Mark Arax does: He investigates and parses tragedy and weaves a coherent tale around it. This, it appears, is what he's compelled to do.

But the problem with these essays is that they presume to be much more than investigative reporting. Arax tries to tease poetic and sometimes political significance out of what are essentially short, well-reported vignettes, and sometimes he tries too hard. "Strange as it sounds," he writes at one point, "the war on terror and the war in Iraq were playing out with a particular intensity in the raisin capital of the world." Is it just my Southern Californian bias, or is it hard to imagine Fresno -- Arax's hometown -- as being the provincial epicenter of post-9/11 America?

Desperate to find meaning in the details, Arax can produce trite commentary in breathless prose. Musing on the decline of social activism since the 1960s, he says, "I only knew that when I strolled across People's Park and onto the Berkeley campus and finally found the steps of Sproul Hall, there wasn't one man raging to thousands about throwing his body onto the gears of the machine but thousands, en masse, heedless, staring into the iridescence of their cell phones."

At its best, "West of the West" is a jumble of colorful moments and characters, but if it was California that Arax was after, the bear got away.

Gregory Rodriguez is director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.

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