Even as a lifelong resident of California, I don’t take the strange, beautiful, and surprising aspects of this state for granted. Born in Los Angeles, I know there are significant and specific assumptions about our city that we could spend our whole lives working to disabuse, but there are also inimitable quirks at the heart of Los Angeles and other California cities that make our state more than merely livable; to spend any amount of time here is an experience. That’s why I was excited to get a copy of the California Prose Directory, the second edition of an anthology dedicated to writing of and within the golden state.
This year’s volume, like the previous one, showcases California’s dangers, thrills, and miracles—many of them unknown to me—from the toxic dust of the Imperial Valley to the warm, invasive smell of the “danger dogs” that colonize nocturnal sidewalks outside concert venues. Editor J. Ryan Stradal has a knack for curating stories that illustrate the sublime beauty and sadness of a state that offers so much promise and heartache.
Stealing a special place in my heart is Rob Roberge’s contribution, “Money and the Getting of Money,” a piece of gritty short fiction that starts off in Long Beach and ends up in the desert. It’s an excerpt from his 2013 novel, The Cost of Living (which gets bonus points for mentioning my hometown of Torrance). Porn, drug selling, drug acquisition, drug consumption, and suicide carry this story along and highlight the dark undertow of the state after the sunshine vanishes. With the same theme of drugs but a more upbeat bent, Wendy C. Ortiz’s “Finding The Natural Way,” excerpted from her McSweeney’s web column, unsentimentally explores the California culture of medical marijuana.
Particularly moving to me was “A River of Stars” by Vanessa Hua, the story of a woman who arrives from China to give birth in a suburb of Los Angeles. Hua’s story, with considerable empathy, highlights the loneliness and alienation that one can experience as a transplant to California.
California is also the home of the surreal. And nothing gets more surreal than Jim Ruland’s “Kessler Has No Lucky Pants.” It begins:
How many pairs of lucky pants does Kessler own?
How many pairs of unlucky pants does Kessler own?
Is this bad?
This Q and A about the terrible luck these pants bring to Kessler is perhaps the most entertaining read in the volume, terminating in a bizarre and harrowing encounter at the Santa Monica Pier.
Of course, no anthology about California would be complete without stories of sex, guilt, alcohol, and shame. The standouts on this end are Zoe Ruiz’s essay “Donna” and Joshua Mohr’s “Veronica’s Teeth.”
I felt ashamed about what I wanted. I felt so much shame. Shame made what I wanted seem sick and disgusting, like my desire was dark, dirty. Be even with all that shame, the desire did not leave. In my fantasies, when Donna fucked me in front of a crowd in a public place, I imagined I was not ashamed of my body or my sexuality. For the first time in my life, I was proud and she was proud of me and the crowd was cheering.
From “Veronica’s Teeth,” which, like “Donna,” features the beautiful, weird, and insane frenzy of San Francisco:
I’m sorry if I let you down. We could have cried and cooed to god together and maybe he would have taken mercy, a miracle happening before the sun came up. The tooth fairy coming not to collect your lost teeth, but to give them back to you, spackle them into your gums so we remained beautiful forever.
From South Bay to the North Bay and all of the hills and valleys in between, this anthology illustrates the wonders of the state through its writers. Many of the stories make me want to hug the characters in this collection, along with California itself; others make me want to pick it up like a child who scraped his knee to give the wound a kiss.
If you live in California, you will likely see a version of yourself in these stories. If you have never been here at all, there is probably a story that will tempt you, or else strengthen your resolve to never set foot in this manic and incredible place. Either way, the slices of California that this year’s Prose Directory illuminates, although stirringly diverse, capture just a small part of it all. The submission window is still open for this year’s anthology. Like a jockey at the gates of Santa Anita or a junkie waiting for a fix in the Tenderloin, I won’t conceal my anticipation.