A man stands amongst others in the tule fog of California's Central Valley, not too far from the memory of an old copper still, waxing philosophical about the twists and turns his life has taken -- a life full of supposedly unexpected pairings like marriage and divorce, full-time and part-time father, professional journalist and...Armenian moonshiner?
The man is Mark Arax, a former journalist for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and author of West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State, a collection of short profiles meant to showcase California "beyond the cliches." The chapter is "Confessions of an Armenian Moonshiner," in which Arax describes his family's rediscovery of an age-old ritual: the making of raki, a process that culminates in a day-long, outdoor event -- cooking and distilling the mash, often accompanied by the cold, wet fog for which central California is known. And if I had to nominate the one image in West of the West that encapsulates the book's strengths and weaknesses, this would be it.
Arax is a great storyteller who likes to create broad, emotional portraits out of small details. For example, while during Prohibition the tule fog would have hidden the production of raki from anyone who might care, in Arax's hands the fog becomes a metaphor for the forces of memory and time -- events that tend to confuse the differences between men and their ancestors, not to mention the lines between past, present and future selves.
The book has two main flaws, however, beginning with how loosely the individual chapters hang together. What results is a series of cinematically colorful stills featuring persons and conflicts that, with the exception of the chapter on California's Emerald Triangle ("The Highlands of Humboldt"), might be found anywhere. I got the sense that in producing West of the West, Arax was feeling nostalgic, digging through old notebooks and previously published stories, and that framing these communities and personalities as specific to California was really just an afterthought, based on the geography of his career.
Secondly -- and what bothered me more -- is that many of Arax's stories involve overstated conflicts of interest, at least to my cynical eye. For instance, in our current era of foodies and nostalgia for artisanal processes, I have no trouble accepting that a journalist might cook mash according to an old family recipe. Neither do I have problems imagining alliances between certain factions of pro-Israeli Jews and anti-Muslim Christians ("Home Front"), the merging of Northern California pot culture with the leftovers of the timber industry ("The Highlands of Humboldt"), or the notion that the United States government might be up to no good ("The Agent").
All in all, however, I'm willing to accept that much of my cynicism is the product of journalists like Arax, who has been breaking stories like "The Agent" for 25 years now. And, on that note, at its core, my enjoyment of this book stemmed from Arax's ability to present characters with enough internal nuance to override the less interesting external conflicts. The tule fog may be a little cold and wet, but as long as I've got a mash that tastes as good to me as Arax's written portraiture, my belly will stay warm.