CARSON VALLEY by Bill Barich


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 First novel from the author of a story collection (Hard to Be Good, 1987) and of a nonfiction attempt to define the great state of California (Big Dreams, 1994). Barich's setting is the grape-growing region of northern California, as good a place as any to muse on the mythology of the state. His protagonist, Arthur Atwater, manages a large vineyard for its aged patriarch, Victor Torelli. Atwater has a checkered past--substance abuse problems and a brief career as a hippie--but he's committed to delivering the crop for Torelli, who has given him ``a third chance.'' Atwater is a confirmed bachelor, a loner, and he throws himself fanatically at his task. Through his and Torelli's eyes, the reader sees the old, Italian California; the coming, gentrified California; and the ordinary, blue-collar California. Into the mix Barich skillfully weaves a subplot concerning Mexican legals and illegals, and his scenes in Tijuana, in particular, show great range. But at the core of the story is a modern, believable, touching romance between Atwater and Torelli's daughter, Anna, who's come home from New York because her mother is dying. Such a love story, marred neither by genre conventions nor ideology, is a considerable feat in the current climate, and, given Barich's attention to detail in the vineyard, along with his graceful, contemplative style, makes this a very good novel, indeed. One might be tempted to compare it to East of Eden, say, except that Barich, in relating to nature, lacks Steinbeck's quirky pantheism, and his view of the world is far gentler than Steinbeck's. But he resembles his elder in that he writes beautifully and, for his own time, captures California. Barich is also often quite amusing, particularly during scenes satirizing the literary life in New York City, upon Anna's return there. A quietly but genuinely remarkable debut.

Pub Date: March 26th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-44210-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1997


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