California Theming

To thank one of the most anti-Trump states in the recent presidential election, California will be the subject of this blog post.

I’ll discuss uplifting as well as depressing novels set partly or completely in The Golden State — whether it be Los Angeles, San Francisco, or less-urban locales.

Last week, I read Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, an excellent crime novel set in Los Angeles — with protagonist Easy Rawlins taking a memorable side trip to the famous Santa Monica Pier. Visiting L.A. and Santa Monica this past summer added to my enjoyment of the book, though it takes place in a much earlier 1948 California filled with disturbing racism that would warm Donald Trump’s shriveled heart.

Among many other crime novels with a California milieu are Thomas Pynchon’s spoofy Inherent Vice (set in 1970s L.A.) and Dashiell Hammett’s iconic The Maltese Falcon (set in 1920s San Francisco).

Beautiful S.F. is one of two metropolises (along with New York City) featured in Robin Sloan’s quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And the greater Bay Area is where the action happens in Philip K. Dick’s post-apocalyptic Dr. Bloodmoney and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, and where some of the story unfolds in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

Immigrants are a big part of the California story, and that’s reflected in Dubus’ book (an Iranian-American is one of three protagonists) and Hosseini’s novel (which features a family from Afghanistan). The Golden State is also a place where people already in America go to start anew, as is the case with Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. Plus real estate is a “yuuge” thing in California, where a dispute over ownership of a modest home sparks the major plot explosion in Dubus’ novel. Then there’s that state’s abundant good weather…unless you start thinking about things like droughts that lead to devastating fires. And the fabled Pacific Ocean, as mentioned in Devil in a Blue Dress and many other California-set novels.

Of course, the movie business is “bigly” associated with California, too, and we see that in novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s absorbing but unfinished The Last Tycoon, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and Charles Bukowski’s hilariously satirical Hollywood that fictionalizes the author’s experience writing the real-life film Barfly.

Other novels set partly or completely in The Golden State? Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (California Gold Rush!), Dave Eggers’ The Circle (Silicon Valley vibe), Maria Semple’s This One Is Mine (which includes music-industry elements), Darryl Brock’s time-traveling If I Never Get Back (20th- and 19th-century scenes in San Francisco), Karl Alexander’s same-genre Time After Time (H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper go back to 1970s S.F.), etc.!

We can’t forget that John Steinbeck used a certain state as the setting for many of his novels — including The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, The Wayward Bus, and To a God Unknown, to name a few. (He did occasionally place his fiction in other locales, such as Europe for The Moon Is Down and Long Island, N.Y., for The Winter of Our Discontent.)

Also, Jack London started The Call of the Wild and ended White Fang with scenes in California, while his Martin Eden is set mostly in Oakland and The Sea-Wolf begins on a San Francisco ferry.

Of course, there are many other California-based novels. What are some of your favorites that I have or haven’t named?

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I’ve finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.