Nevada-born novelist Bergon (Jesse’s Ghost, 2011, etc.) takes readers along the back roads of central California, painting a portrait of “the communal values of today’s True West.”
In today’s political climate, a lot of oxygen is being burned up in arguments over immigration and, to a lesser extent, resource use, both key issues in the San Joaquin Valley. There, notes the author, everyone came from somewhere else, exotic places such as Armenia, Italy, and the Basque country. “Not melted into a homogeneous American society,” he writes, “they stamped California, Nevada, and by extension the West as pluralistic.” Nativists may broil at the thought, but that pluralistic tradition continues. By Bergon’s account, the region, made up of Okies and African-Americans and Hispanics and everyone else, is at least a hair more tolerant than elsewhere in the country; as one Jewish resident of Madera recalls, asked whether he’d experienced discrimination, “hell, no. There weren’t enough of us. To have discrimination you need a group.” The region offered opportunities of many kinds to those newcomers, mostly in agriculture. The author offers the story of Fred Franzia, who labored and negotiated his way into the ownership of numerous abandoned and disused wineries and their labels, one of them the famed “Two-Buck Chuck” blends sold at Trader Joe’s. (A neighbor who first entered the United States illegally bottles the Green Fin label, made of organic grapes, for which TJ’s is the exclusive outlet.) There’s the Marlboro man of the title, too, an actual working cowboy who smoked, and a panoply of other players, including Native American novelist Louis Owens. Bergon makes clear that for all its virtues, though, Central California isn’t paradise—in good part because, as a farmer cousin tells him, “California is drying up….All the farmers are going out of business. It’s bad. Now they’re regulating the water.”
Without the heft of Marc Reisner or Victor Davis Hanson, but still a tour of the interior West worth taking.