David M. Kinchen

HNN olumns/090420-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html
April 20 2009

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is
immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible
voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion
and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to
write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by
lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope
and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the
glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of
man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and
prevail. -- William Faulkner, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature
in Stockholm Sweden, December 1950

National Public Radio famously promotes what they call "driveway
moments" -- stories so captivating that you remain in your car when
you arrive home, listening to the story to the end.

I experienced the living room recliner equivalent of driveway
moments reading Mark Arax's "West of the West: Dreamers, Believers,
Builders, and Killers in the Golden State" (PublicAffairs, 352 pages,
$26.95). It's a collection of reportage about California that ranks
with the best journalism I've read in my 43 years in the business.

Arax, a former senior writer at the Los Angeles Times -- my newspaper
home from March 1976 to the summer of 1990 -- got his title from a
remark by President Theodore Roosevelt: "When I am in California,
I am not in the West. I am west of the West."

For a number of years now, I've been trying without success to
trace another comment that I think was made by Teddy Roosevelt:
"California is too small to be a country and too big to be an
insane asylum." Roosevelt was reacting to one of the Golden State's
periodic racist laws excluding Asians from residency and/or land
ownership. After all, California racists and xenophobes in 1942
engineered the internment of about 110,000 Japanese-Americans in
the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Another President
Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 legalizing this act, against
the advice of none other than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Actually, if California were a separate nation, it would rank in the
top 10 in gross national product. Even in its weakened state -- which
Arax explores in his discussion of builders gone wild in the vast
Central Valley where he was born and raised -- California remains an
economic powerhouse, home to some of the greatest innovators of all
time. The Apple iMac I'm using to write this review is an example of
that innovation by two guys named Steve from the San Jose area.

After his marriage ended, Arax was living in a rented condo, paying
what he considered a reasonable $1,400 a month rent. Surveying the
meltdown of the real estate market in Fresno, he found he could buy
the kind of house he wanted, with a backyard big enough for a garden,
for a bargain price, enabling him to become a homeowner again for
what he was paying to rent the condo. This is a wonderful segue to
his story, "The Last Valley," which explores the almost unrestricted
growth and short-sightedness that has led to California's having more
foreclosures than any other state.

"The Last Valley" appealed to me because much of my journalism
career has been devoted to covering real estate. Arax was attacked
by developers for his coverage of the out-of-control real estate
development of cities like Fresno, Stockton, Modesto, Clovis and
Bakersfield. Even the Fresno Bee piled on, accusing Arax of picking
on Fresno because of the unsolved murder of his father.

Arax explored this 1972 murder in one of his previous books, "In My
Father's Name." He was also the co-author, with Rick Wartzman, of
"The King of California," which explored the agricultural development
of the Central Valley, the "other California" that was the setting
of much of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" published 70 years
ago this month.

Through his tenacious digging, Arax finally discovers what happened the
night Ara Arax, his father, was murdered in his roadhouse/restaurant on
Highway 99. Presented in the final chapter in the book, "An Epilogue,"
it's a very moving piece of journalism.

Mark Arax is proud, as he should be, of his Armenian heritage. One of
my favorite people in my journalism career is an Armenian American,
Dick Turpin -- the best real estate editor the L.A. Times ever had --
who lured me away from The Milwaukee Sentinel in 1976, enabling me
to become a stranger in a strange land for the next 16 years.

Chapter Four, "Legend of Zankou," explores the career of another
Armenian, Mardiros Iskenderian, who emigrated from Beirut, Lebanon
to the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale and built a restaurant empire
around his Zankou Chicken gourmet fast-food restaurants that
"dazzled the food critics and turned customers into a cult." In
another mesmerizing piece of journalism, Arax explores the possible
reasons why Iskenderian murdered his mother and his sister and then
turned the pistol on himself.

Switching to a more light-hearted tone, Arax describes the love of
his ethnic group for fermented raisins in "Confessions of An Armenian
Moonshiner." Thanks to this gem of a story, we learn that moonshiners
aren't limited to Appalachia: "We had been making moonshine in
the San Joaquin Valley for as long as we had been growing fruit,"
Arax writes. "Each immigrant group swore by a different mash. The
Armenian and his raisin. The Slav and his plum. The Italian and his
blood-red Alicante bouschet. My great-grandmother Azniv, who died
when I was seven, was a moonshiner. She kept her bottle of ooug-he,
raki, white lightning flavored with anise, in a burlap sack two feet
under the earth of the vineyard where my father was born."

Arax travels to Berkeley for a Con-Con, a Conspiracy Conference,
and goes to the real northern California to probe the marijuana
growing culture of Humboldt County in Chapter Six, "Highlands
of Humboldt." Under Proposition 215, enacted in 1996, the state
allows cultivation of marijuana to be grown and distributed for
"compassionate" medical purposes. In the ensuing decade, Arax tells us
"215 had been stretched and pulled in so many different directions
that it had lost all meaning, or rather it meant whatever folks in
Garberville and Arcata wanted it to mean."

The war in Iraq and political tensions in Central California are
examined in "The Agent" and "The Home Front." In "The Agent," veteran
FBI agent James Wedick Jr. finds himself testifying on behalf of
two Pakistani Muslim immigrants who were accused of belonging to an
alleged Al Qaeda sleeper cell in the San Joaquin Valley city of Lodi.

In "The Home Front," Arax describes the conflicts between those who
supported and those who opposed the invasion of Iraq, along with how
a family handled the deaths of two sons in the conflict. He also
describes what he considers to be a strange alliance between Jews
and conservative Christians in Fresno.

Earl Shelton is profiled in the "Last Okie of Lamont." The immigrants
from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s -- Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas -- have
been replaced by immigrants from Mexico and Central America. "He
[Shelton] arrived in Lamont with no mother and a drunken father and
lived twelve years at the government camp on the outskirts of town --
the labor camp John Steinbeck immortalized in 'The Grapes of Wrath'."

Arax suggests that Earl Shelton himself might be a suitable subject for
the National Register of Historic Places listings for the camp, post
office and other sites in Lamont: "Earl stood there too, Okie relic,
surrounded by families from Michoacan and Jalisco and Oaxaca. They
were digging their knees into the same farm fields where he had picked
cotton and unearthed potatoes some sixty-five years ago."

Also in the agricultural vein -- agriculture is always a major part of
any analysis of California -- is a story, "The Great Microbe Hunt,"
about a California peculiarity I've never been able to fathom, the
love of raw milk. Mark McAfee grew almonds and produced raw organic
milk in the San Joaquin Valley. In the summer of 2006 the state had
linked five cases of E. coli poisoning to his milk and shut down his
operation. All of the victims were children.

Rather than dump the milk, the "hard-core among McAfee's 15,000
customers in California, who regarded the state's recall as nothing
more than a government conspiracy to deny them 'living food,' raced
to pick up the last bottles from health food market shelves."

McAfee, Arax tells us, was the nation's biggest producer of raw milk:
Milk not pasteurized or homogenized, "milk straight from the cow's
udder to a child's mouth with only a cotton sock filter in between...."

I was familiar with the love of many Californians for raw milk, even
though I found it difficult to endorse. I spent my first decade on
a Michigan subsistence farm, which also produced milk and eggs for
our own consumption and cash income and we were careful to make sure
the milk we sold to retailers was as pure as possible. Come to think
of it, the milk we drank was maybe I can understand those
California health nuts after all!

My advice to any journalism student: Pick up a copy of "West of the
West" and absorb it. It's a delight to read and you'll learn what
good news writing is all about.

General readers who appreciate excellence in writing will also benefit
from the book. I may be a wistful dinosaur, but I feel that really good
news writing exists mainly in the past. The L.A. Times recently decided
to stop running the columns of a great writer named Al Martinez. Where
are today's Jack Smiths and Jim Murrays? Mark Arax shows that even
in today's incredibly shrinking news media environment, good writing
will not only, in Faulkner's words, endure, it will prevail.

About the Author

Author and journalist Mark Arax is a co-author of The King of
California and author of In My Fathers Name. He is a contributing
writer at Los Angeles magazine and a former senior writer at the Los
Angeles Times. He teaches nonfiction writing at Claremont McKenna
College and lives in Fresno.