The California Gaze

Together with his novel and earlier memoir, Terry McDonell’s Irma defines a uniquely West Coast perspective, one of perpetual curiosity and self-discovery.

terry mcdonell, irma
Thomas McDonell

California is both a state of mind and a physical place, its sensibility shaped by geography, conflict, and experience.

It was the Left Coast even before the Europeans arrived. This slender edge of the continent was the place human beings came after they likely wandered across the Bering Land Bridge and from which they pushed farther south, to warmer weather, richer hunting grounds, on their way, eventually, to the southern tip of South America.

Centuries later, the density and complexity of Indigenous tribes, cultures, and languages in the land west of the High Sierra had become a human continent unto itself.

Merely a few decades after Columbus, the Spaniards came, and then Portuguese ships, followed by Russian fur traders, English navigators, and then, much later, droves of northern Europeans traveling from what we call “back East.” There was Lewis and Clark, although they reached the Pacific Ocean by way of the Columbia River, in present-day Oregon. In the 1820s, Jedediah Smith wandered into San Gabriel from the Mojave Desert. After him came the great land grab of the 1840s, which was hyper-accelerated by the gold rush of the early ’50s—the Silicon Valley boom of its day.

To each era, California offered yet another dream of wealth, an escape from the confines of older civilizations, one with only slight regard for the immigrants who had come before and even less for the land’s Indigenous inhabitants.

Which authors have been the literary chroniclers of this complex and multilayered sequence of civilizations that underpin contemporary society? Richard Henry Dana? John Muir? John Fante? Walter Mosley? Father Juan Crespí? Ana Castillo? Maxine Hong Kingston? Ishmael Reed?

That list and debate will go on for as long as people read. And there is no correct, or best, answer. You reveal who you are by whom you pick for your list, your own nominees for the California canon.

So here are my three. Joan Didion, whose voice, subjects, and cadence make vivid my own experience. Kevin Starr, whose amazing histories documented the smallest details and largest themes of the Golden State. And finally, Terry McDonell, who grew up here and has written about the West in three books that constitute a virtual trilogy.

It’s perhaps too much to impose on an author the existence of a trilogy when the author has not suggested such a thing. Admittedly, he has also written a collection of poetry, Wyoming. But bear with me. I’m not predicting that the Library of America will soon issue a single volume of all three books with a silk ribbon to mark your place.

What I’m suggesting to you, dear reader, is that these three books, taken as a whole, present a kind of Rashomon vision of the Western ethic. To be more precise, and more fair to the author: Each book is a meditation on the author’s origin story, his personal world line—a portrait of the artist—but also on the universal effort to see ourselves as part of a greater narrative. Each asks, How do I place myself, how will I be placed in the pageant of history, arts, letters, legend?

Let me explain, taking the books in publication order.

California Bloodstock, from 1980, is a third-person novel haunted by the notion that modern and ancient California are linked in a blood pact. The book is not written in a straightforward narrative style like that of Richard Ford or Didion, but rather in a series of short scenes. Like a screenplay without stage directions. The characters’ speech patterns and actions advance the narrative. One is constantly aware of how the sound of the novel is both ancient and modern, how there is a throughline from the villages of ancient California to surf-culture lingo and ultimately to the modernism and the patois of the current day.

It’s a virtual road cut through the layers of our history. As a cult novel, California Bloodstock has gone in and out of print over the past 40 years but deserves to be more studied and appreciated, perhaps assigned as required reading for a younger generation that probably knows of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and might have seen the movie Little Big Man. Bloodstock is a difficult book written in an era when universities and critics were not accustomed to confronting the genocide that took place in California.

The author’s blunt and colorful language, sentences written with the economy of Ernest Hemingway, describes a brutal world. The elegance and mood of the tale are reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—itself a novel that is not considered to be literal truth but that depicts a greater truth about the treatment of America’s Native population.

McDonell’s book presents the mid-19th-century epoch with brutal realism. But throughout these stark and elegiac paragraphs, one detects both irony and dark humor. As though the actors in this drama knew all along how absurd and doomed their own stories, and rationalizations, would become in the light of history. Bloodstock is not an apology or a romance but a meditation, an entertainment, on the theme of an alternative western narrative that will prove the lie to storybook history.

The second book, in my putative trilogy, is The Accidental Life, published in 2016. It’s a straightforward memoir that seems on the surface to have little relevance to the point of view of California or the West.

The book consists of a series of tales about the interactions between the author and a vast variety of American literary writers—many of them encountered during McDonell’s years as a top editor of magazines, from Esquire to Sports Illustrated.

McDonell was known for having a strong viewpoint, which some writers found difficult. In the end, it was his view that there might be many ways to tell a story, and perhaps you could consider some alternatives.

Is that a uniquely Californian ethic? I’m not sure. But McDonell brought to his job, and his memoir of the editing process, a preference for clear and authentic speech.

I know from personal experience. In my time working with him at Outside magazine, there were moments when he would suggest a change, albeit considerate about what I was trying to say; perhaps the way I was saying it was not tracking. He’d offer that it might work better another way, this way.

His editing style could feel critical, but often the next day I’d wake up to say, No, he’s right. I have my story upside down. The last paragraph should be the first. It will work better that way. McDonell was a genius with story structure and organization.

There is a wonderful anecdote in the book where McDonell is introducing Kurt Vonnegut to some of the folks at Newsweek. It’s a long and festive dinner, and they ask Vonnegut one of the questions people always ask: “About his work habits, his hours, stuff like that. When did he write? ‘All the time,’ Kurt said. ‘That’s all I do.’ He let that settle, stirred his drink with a long finger and added, ‘You could say I’m writing now.’ ”

It’s a funny story because you realize that a fiction writer is indeed working all the time, noticing life moment by moment. And yes, he might be writing a scene from a future novel right now as you ask him your question.

McDonell is writing all the time too. And that is the pleasure of The Accidental Life.

I will submit that The Accidental Life is not a deliberate exploration of the western point of view. Not on the surface, anyway. But it does, by reflection, reveal the author’s view of the whole writing project. And we moderns cannot accept any literary summary without knowing the author’s history, background, and taste.

Finally, we come to McDonell’s new book, Irma, which of the three offers the most direct meditation on the West, even though it appears to be a biography written by a dutiful son of his devoted and complicated mother.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

I don’t know of anything else like it. Perhaps in empathy for a powerful female figure, it recalls Jim Harrison’s Dalva. My guess is that McDonell’s book became a voyage of discovery of his mother, but also a chance to unravel his own origins and impulses, a rethinking of his own life events, from the changed viewpoint, the inevitable greater perspective, that comes with age.

With luck, we arrive, finally, at the age of our parents, if not grandparents. So, the telescope becomes inverted.

It’s an original literary technique, a memoir in the form of looking at your own life experience through the mirror of another person, a person so close to you that her life, and your reflection in it, cannot be told in the third person.

McDonell’s father died during World War II, when the author was just five months old, depriving them of the chance to become a bonded pair. McDonell was essentially raised in a single-parent household. His re-creation and reimagining of his mother’s life—with the compassion and understanding attained by looking back—form the core of the book. But there is lots of California culture here: Santa Cruz, surfing, football at Cal.

Irma is a beautifully crafted book. Its rich language and sharp, poignant descriptions are suggestive of James Salter at his best. In her way, McDonell’s mother was the inspiration for his eventual emergence as a premier editor and writer. Irma was the person who gave initial direction to the author’s life.

When he was in junior high school, Irma told him if he liked girls they would like him back, and they did. Now he liked women, and was drawn to women others found difficult. They were more interesting simply by not going along, sometimes busting him for not paying attention or showing off. Like Irma, in a way, but, of course, not. He was aware that women not letting him off the hook for this or that might be good for him, might be helping him evolve, in the argot of the day.
Little by little, he started listening more carefully to them. One told him the greatest gift you can give a lover is the thought that you are both alive at the same time. Proust, he thought. She smiled sweetly at him and explained Joyce’s thinking that a good enough writer could awaken the experience of being alive every moment. He loved that.

McDonell believed, and his friends thought it made sense, that his dad had been a fighter pilot. Probably that was why he and Salter got along so well.

I have known a few pilots in that class. The ones I met, some of whom had made it to the Blue Angels team, were not the Tom Cruise version, with a lot of frat boy banter and locker room towel snapping. They were quiet people, more like surgeons than jocks, and they were really good at what they did. They resembled elite athletes in the sense that they had physical skills that are not widely shared in the general population.

They also had that attitude, ready to kill but also get killed themselves—so they were natural-born existentialists. In the trailing pages of the book, McDonell comes to realize that the fighter pilot story is not quite true. His dad did die in a plane crash—and probably saved a few lives, by avoiding occupied buildings. But not as a fighter pilot.

Myth is sometimes stronger than fact. One wonders, at the end of Irma, whether McDonell was a kind of warrior himself, willing to do battle for his writers, his clarity of vision, his team, possessing special skills—and tracing his character back to the courage and adventurous spirit of his mother.

Memoir is memory. And like all memory, it shifts and changes in the retelling. Proust was correct: the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights but in looking with new eyes.

Irma is a sparkling book. It has the economy and power of language found in California Bloodstock. It has the literary sophistication of The Accidental Life. But it has the vulnerability, tenderness, and gratitude of a son who made good.•


Will Hearst is the editor and publisher of Alta Journal, which he founded in 2017.
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