In his sweeping, dialectical history of California, Atwater investigates the tumultuous marriage of dream and reality in the Golden State.
Atwater’s is a colossal undertaking—he introduces his project as an attempt to take the lessons embedded in California’s collective memories and dreams and apply them to the present state of affairs. His approach is based heavily on citations, pulled mainly from texts by California State Librarian Kevin Starr and journalist Carey McWilliams, often at significant length. Though he preempts criticism of this tactic at the outset, one cannot help but feel overburdened by the quoted material, and perhaps more interested in reading the source texts rather than the presented amalgam. When Atwater is describing California in his words, he does so with equal parts oratorical flair and academic historicism, as well as a smattering of personal anecdotes. Over the course of four parts and eight chapters, he addresses each aspect of the California existence—economics, lifestyle, education, race relations and even geology—in the same way: first in its fabled grandeur, then in its uglier truth and finally with the rhetorical question of “why not fix it?” While this question may feel naïve to readers familiar with the nature of political gridlock, Atwater finally arrives at the simple answer that “the paradisal conceptions we have of how to live life…cannot but be twisted by the fact that we irrevocably live in reality.” This conclusion feels long in coming, as the discrepancy between dream and reality feels inherent throughout the text. Rhetorical questions and answers aside, Atwater at his best is able to elegantly depict California as a metaphor for the United States as a whole—a land in which economic greatness is “an imperfect proxy for societal well-being,” and the greater good is ensnared by arcane bureaucracy and special interest.
Though questions of the attainability of the change proposed throughout are left to linger, Atwater’s “blueprint” will appeal to the hearts of California enthusiasts.