23
Sep
14

The Strange, Mean Origins of the 31st State: California Bloodstock – Terry McDonell

California BloodstockCalifornia Bloodstock by Terry McDonell

A quick rip through the tangles history of California, McDonell’s novel is an occasionally funny, ultimately disappointing read.

Excepting New York, California’s probably the most-written about place in American literature. It holds this lure over people: a sun-drenched place where everything looks nice and the people are laid back, a land of beaches and Beach Boys. Of course, it’s not.

Going as far back as Dashiell Hammett, writers have also captured the dark, seedy side of the state. The Continental Op dealt with profit-hungry mine owners and corrupt politicos, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe with seedy gamblers, dirty cops and remorseless killers. This dark streak goes right through Joan Didion and Thomas Pynchon and their books about the state.

So where then does California Bloodstock fit in? Originally published in 1980 and now decades out of print, this slim volume follows a small cast as California blossoms out of a rural settlement and into statehood. There’s Taya, a dark and brooding young woman who’s tracking down the three men who sexually assaulted her; TD Slant Sr., a newspaperman, raconteur and generally without shame; TD Jr., an artist trying to track down his long-absconded dad and a few others who pop in and out of the loose narrative.

McDonell dips in and out of California’s rich history, touching on everything from Russian settlers to civil wars, gold rushes to massacres. There are occasionally moments of levity, but generally this is a grim little book: everyone mutters, drinks and treats each other like shit. Maybe California’s always been a mean place.

One example: early in the book, Slant writes his own history and pisses off three aimless, cruel drifters; they in turn, slice off his balls and leave him for dead. Ever the opportunist, Slant turns this to his advantage. When gold hunters started buying little seamless sacks to collect dust, Slant weaves his own, improbable tale:

 

“Early on, he purchased a faded pink sack from Joaquin Peach… No sooner had Peach returned to Sutter’s Fort than old T.D. started referring to himself as Money Balls, claiming his own purse was fashioned from his own scrotum. Circumstantially, he had no trouble proving it.” (pg 137)

 

It’s a fun spin on the old angle of the self-obsessed huckster, trying to make a name for himself in whatever angle presents itself. Sure, it’s in awful taste, but very little here is: people routinely kill or backstab. At least when they’re not treating the Natives like crap.

Native Americans have an odd place in this book. One key character is the mystical, spiritual His Own Shadow, a shaman who shows up out of the woods to offer cryptic, sage wisdom. And peyote buttons. On the other hand, the legion of Worm Eaters are treated as inhuman chattel by the novel’s antagonists, who routinely abuse them in any way that comes to mind.

On the cover of the Vintage Contemporary edition of this novel, there’s a blurb by Hunter Thompson: “The twisted truth about where California came from.” I think we’re coming from different places, but I get what Thompson meant: California Bloodstock is a mean read, but I bet it’s certainly in the spirit of what happened. I just couldn’t shake a feeling of contempt towards McDonell’s characters, like they were people he didn’t especially like.

In addition, the pacing’s kind of a mess. He jumps all over, often in short, paragraph-long chapters between a good dozen characters (The Year of the French, however, juggled it’s large cast much more successfully). Nearly everyone speaks in the same, cross voice.

At times, I was reminded of Pynchon’s Against the Day. That book has a character also obsessed with photography, roaming around the west. But Pynchon’s book also has a spark, a feeling of humanity to it’s cast. Against the Day is the polar opposite of this: a sprawling, immersive read. California Bloodstock, however, is like an early hardcore song: snappy, angry and over almost as soon as it begins.

Rating: 2/10. A couple of nice jokes aside, it’s an ambitious attempt at a metaphorical history of California that I think worked a lot better in theory than it does on the page. You could do a lot better, but I bet you’re not too likely to stumble across this one, either.

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