Whether it's a rainy redwood forest, a red-clay desert, or a shiny subdivision outside of Las Vegas, the American West is the place you go in order to become someone else. A new name, a new life. Clane Hayward's parents did this. They ended up in the Upper Haight in the year Clane was born, during the Summer Of Love, in search of a new kind of world. At the opening of Hayward's beautiful and heartbreaking memoir of her childhood, The Hypocrisy of Disco, she is eleven. She is living with her mother H'lane and two of her younger siblings, Haud and Ki, in a tumble-down house on the Russian River. Hayward writes from a child's perspective, partly misunderstanding and partly ultra-perceptive, angry and rebellious but wanting to be cared for and loved more than anything. Her descriptions of the small joys of a wild childhood are achingly beautiful.
The book opens with Clane, her siblings, and the kids of her mom's best friend running out of the house together at dusk. "Slap bang goes the screen door three or four times fast, because the seven of us kids are all leaving the house at once...Together we make a sound of slapping tennies on dirt, of jeans and corduroys whistling, of gravel skipping ahead of our hurrying feet." The West might be the place you go to be free, but the price of that freedom is loneliness. "How come there's so many of us kids with our parents spread all over the place having different kids wherever they go? I ask H'lane. H'lane says, free love, man...I haven't seen my dad for a few years."
Despite living in various "communal" settings, Clane's childhood is one of the most regimented and isolated you can possibly imagine. One of H'lane's lovers introduces her to macrobiotic food, and afterwards forbids her children from eating tomatoes, soyburgers, or uncooked vegetables. They're also not allowed to sleep on their stomachs, drink more than a certain prescribed amount of water, or use more than two squares of toilet paper at a time. In addition, they are forbidden from wearing synthetic fabrics or day-glo colors. In 1978, this is really too much to ask. For long stretches there is no school and no roof, just a patch of dirt and a picnic table. Not surprisingly, the kids spend most of their energy scavenging for junk food and discarded clothes, shoplifting, and doing things like sneaking into a neighbors' house to gulp white sugar straight out of the container.
It would have been easy for Clane Hayward to pen a straight-up indictment of hippie culture and of her parents. But thankfully she is too good a writer to fall into that trap. She writes about her time attending Monte Rio Alternative (a "free school" where children can essentially do whatever they feel like) with a real and deep affection that will make you wish you got to go there. But even alternative school was not alternative enough for H'lane, so Clane didn't get to go there long. Any kind of good, common-sense stable structure Clane had would eventually be snatched away. You get the feeling that if Clane's mom had relented in her lifestyle strictures just the slightest bit, if she'd let Clane wear polyester and eat a peanut butter sandwich every now and then, she could have halted the separation between them that grew wider over time. "The next thing, we were on the road walking home and she was tugging me by the collar of my shirt, saying, Clane, I don't know what your trip is. I want you to be Cleopatra but you want to be Minnie Mouse." When H'lane's best friend Susan's little boy suffers a bad injury from falling into the campfire, H'lane tells her, "no way should you take him to the hospital. Western medicine is death culture." Susan, posessing the larger share of common sense, takes her kids (and her food stamps) and leaves Clane's family in dire straits. Eventually, H'lane is doing nothing but meditating and eating nothing but rice.
The second act of the book takes place in the Southwest, where Clane and Haud have been packed off to live with their outlaw dad in a dirt-floor house. He's often absent for days at a time. Clane befriends some kids from a neighboring Latino family, and her fascinated description of their home is devastating. Although the neighbors are equally dirt-poor, they have a bustling little "abuelita" who spends all day cooking in a scrubbed linoleum and formica kitchen, providing all the things that Clane and Haud never got: yummy food, a clean home, scoldings when they've done wrong and praise when they've done right. Emotionally, Clane's like an American version of the Little Match Girl, freezing to death outside a home where a loving family is safe and warm. By the time Clane and Haud are handed off yet again, this time to their grandmother in suburban Las Vegas, they are nearly feral, years behind in schooling, with no social skills whatsoever.
The most beautiful of the book's many lyrical descriptive passages comes when Clane's uncle is driving her across the desert to Vegas. You can see and feel the scene, the long hot day, the sunset across the sky. That night, the impossibly bright neon lights on the horizon symbolize the rupture with everything that came before. Clane stares in awe at the contents of her grandmother's side-by-side refigerator-freezer: concentrated orange juice, frozen waffles, cartons of cigarettes, cocktail onions and maraschino cherries. It's like they've landed on a new planet. If Clane Hayward was just writing this book to condemn the 1970's counterculture, then this would be the happy ending, the rescue. But nothing is ever so simple. New bell bottoms and school books are not a substitute for a stable childhood, or parental love.
Hayward's perception for small detail is absolutely tremendous. The Hypocrisy of Disco is an elegy for something she never had, a eulogy for the hope of one day being "normal." But throughout all the unstable tumult, the one thing that never leaves Clane is her love of the American West itself. She shows us the trees, the sunsets, the smell of the desert after a much needed rain. Hayward does what all great writers should do: she shows us an unfamiliar view of familiar territory. She strips away stereotype and narrative expectation and leaves us alone with this whip-smart and achingly sad twelve year old girl, wearing her only pair of ragged green pants, wishing she had somewhere to go.
Hayward is a Navy veteran, and after many years of living in San Francisco she is now a middle school teacher in Austin, Texas. There's obviously a lot more story to tell. I hope she'll tell it.