Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.
There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:
Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán
The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.
In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title, a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction, this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.
While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.
This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.
This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.
 Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).
 Carolina A. Miranda, “How to look at Los Angeles: A conversation with D.J. Waldie, Lynell George and Josh Kun,” Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-how-to-see-los-angeles-dj-waldie-lynell-george-and-josh-kun-20150721-column.html.
Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).
Copyright: © 2017 Elaine Lewinnek. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/