5 Overlooked Literary Sketches of Coastal California

There’s nothing wrong with skimming through The Grapes of Wrath or Two Years Before the Mast the night before your book group meeting, but California belles-lettres offers so much more than the oft-told tales of the family Joad. There’s a whole sagging shelf, in fact, of obscure printed-page pleasures out there in your local used book shop.

Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris (1899). Best known for penning the Golden State’s other geo-socialist epic — the 688-page, aptly titled The Octopus — this Bay Area adept delivered a half-dozen novels in his brief lifetime, before ceding the title of California’s literary Man o’ War to an up-and-coming Jack London. This particular novella — a love story between an effete city boy and a Scandinavian sea captain’s lusty daughter — unfolds in great cinematic form, panning from genteel Frisco life to scenes of violent shanghaiing, high seas roguishness, and swarthy pirates shivving each other on Baja beaches. A turn-of-the-last-century page turner!

The Dolphins of Altair by Margaret St. Clair (1967). Sixty-eight years later, science-fiction writer Margaret St. Clair bettered Norris’ offshore chicanery by throwing in a pod of vengeful dolphins armed with purloined explosives. Tired of being poked and prodded by scientists, the rogue sea mammals team up with some antisocial humans to extract a little payback. They start by dropping a mine in an offshore earthquake fault, and then get more creative, melting the icecaps with some sort of magically charged quartz crystals. The result is rapidly rising sea levels and pretty much total destruction of the human race, all with front row seats for the victorious home team. “We swam closer,” recalls one dolphin. “The California current [was] alive with sharks, and no wonder. Among the floating timbers, sides of houses, sheets of plastic and uprooted trees were many bodies. The sharks slashed and tore at the fresh dead, greedily delighted, and when one body was stripped as clean of flesh as its clothing would allow, there was always another body to take its place at the sharks’ feast.”

Comrades by Thomas Dixon (1909). Egged on by a modern-day Joan of Arc named Barbara Bozenta — whose incendiary speeches ignite the ire of self-respecting California capitalists statewide — a cadre of red flag-wavers plop down enough bread to buy their very own island off the coast of Santa Barbara, where they set up a real-life Commie paradise with self-sufficient farming, rough-hewn attire and equal wages for all. The Brotherhood of Man’s hopes to attract 5,000 loyal workers, send out its own bohemian emissaries, and conjure “a new social order, a higher civilization, a new republic!” are dashed when the greed from the mainland manages to paddle across the channel. Even Bozenta’s inspiring doggerel (“Nations are but the dung-heaps out of which the fair flower of world-democracy is slowly growing.”) is no match for the seductive hum of capitalism.

High on Gold by Lee Richmond (1972). The story of two California dreamers a century apart. First, Joshua Aarons mingles with Mormons and digs for treasure in the Gold Rush. Disheartened by the greed and avarice around him, he retreats to an island called Anahita off the Golden Gate to ponder his mortal existence. One hundred twenty years later, Boston acid-head Gerveys Lecompte, on a quest for gold of a leafier variety, stumbles into Anahita — “now the mecca of hippiedom” — only to lose himself “in a fog of dope and disillusionment.” Try and imagine James Michener adapting Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me into a romance novel. Then pull a tube and try again.

Street Magic by Michael Reeves (1991). When the Queen of Fairie “locked down the gates of her land to all but the highest born,” the cast-out “scatterlings” somehow found themselves trapped in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district dodging junkies, skinheads and tranny hookers. Follow the sad-eyed waifs as they huddle in their “magic nests” in the Panhandle, shivering in threadbare Velvet Underground T-shirts. Or root them on as they trick “round ears” into handing over their Muni fare with “sparkly magic from their fingertips.” The best (if not only) portrait of late ’80s S.F. before the interweb blitzkrieg killed The City dead. Who knew the gateway to the Fair Realm was right down the street from The Stud?