Aptly titled debut novel limns a part-time professor’s dark night of the soul in sunny San Diego.
Thirty-five-year-old Joe Blake ambles around “America’s Finest City” and its environs as though in a Dante-esque phantasmagoria. An adjunct instructor at three low-level colleges, Joe collects wan essays from his listless students. His Beatrice is Theresa Sanchez, a bookseller with whom he falls in love after hearing her talk about her enthusiasm for the poet Pablo Neruda. As he goes about his lackluster days, the point of view passes, relay-style, to various people Joe encounters: a sailor in a Tijuana bar; a Mexican prostitute; a homeless man who was his student. A self-styled boulevardier, Joe observes the local juxtaposition of aggressive gentrification and seedy counterculture remnants. His detailed scan of the passing scenery, complete with a play-by-play soundtrack of jazz cuts and alarmist radio news, often grows tedious. Enticing when the principals pall are sketches of backdrop characters, from satisfied Italian-American housewife Rosie and aging former bouncer Chuck to intellectual Rex, who has a fateful session on a health-club treadmill, and crank-head Gary and his frat-boy dealer. Italicized entr’actes and arcane illustrations interrupt the action to educate readers about San Diego’s relentless boomerism, racism and union-busting. Joe and Theresa head for a failed desert-resort development bordering the festering Salton Sea, a dead lake created by a misguided attempt to divert the Colorado River for irrigation purposes. This bleak landscape is the moral high ground that Joe and his author seek. Inevitably, carnage intrudes with a head-on collision between a truckload of slave laborers and a family van. But this is California: Joe might just survive his midlife madness after all.
A rueful paean to a city, mired in polemic purgatory.