Promising, Flawed Novel Yo-Yos From L.A. to S.F.

The Ruins of California is a great title, even if it’s hard to know where a name like “Ruin” comes

The Ruins of California is a great title, even if it’s hard to know where a name like “Ruin” comes from—and actually, in California, people do still come from somewhere other than a scenarist’s treatment. Take Inez Ruin, a child in 1969 and the narrator of this book. She’s the daughter of divorce: Her mother, Connie, a flamenco dancer with a bit of Peru in her, lives in Los Angeles, while the dad, Paul, has a pad on Telegraph Hill, up in San Francisco. So the kid is back and forth, by P.S.A., an ice-cream airline that many Californians recall with nostalgia.

And there we are at the airport, no farther along than page 5, and Martha Sherrill is letting us know she can do it—the writing thing—with this terrific sad segue (sad segues are the cement in the ruins of California):

“‘Say hello for me,’ my mom said at the gate. Her voice had gone soft. Her face was weird and dreamy. She had shifted into a new position. Her mind was like a sail, and a new breeze was blowing. It wasn’t only her. My father had a way of doing that to a person. Just when you’d decided that he didn’t care about anybody but himself, he said something so sensitive and kind, or did something so generous, you couldn’t get over it. Just when you’d decided he was a rat and a fink—my mother’s words, not mine—it would dawn on you that he was a god and you loved him more than anybody. That’s how he made us all feel. Uncertain, off kilter. You wanted more of him—but, at the same time, you weren’t sure about that either.”

Maybe it’s me being a sucker for father-child stories, but I liked that and felt encouraged. I told myself that Martha Sherrill had had a Paul Ruin of her own; and I read on with the excitement of somebody wishing for one himself. Although Inez tells this story, going from childhood to college age, from 1969 to 1980, Paul is the reason for reading, and the single thing that keeps you hoping that Martha Sherrill is a writer, as opposed to someone who wants to write.

Paul lives up in the city to the north, and he’s very vaguely into something called the computer business. This is nicely rendered, as through a child’s gaze, and it fits a lot of people who were thereabouts at that time, stylish hippies inclined to hang out in North Beach but doing a little bit of lecturing on “information theory,” and so on. There was a moment when it was impossible to tell whether they were fakes and flakes or harbingers of the future. Inez lets it slip that Paul has a couple of students who form a little company called … Apple, is it? And by the end of the book, he’s rich enough to be a collector of Egon Schiele with a purpose-built home in the Marin Headlands (though where exactly defies the maps of anyone who knows the area) and a stream of women—lovely, uncritical playmates.

None of Paul’s women has any adhesion: They start to slide off the page even as they lose their grip on his smooth, amiable surface. Paul has had other children along the way—there’s a half-brother, Whitman, a chronic surfer who turns out to be a real pal to Inez, and whose drug habit is the accelerator in her growing up. There are a lot of other family members thrown in—indeed, you get the feeling that when Ms. Sherrill doesn’t quite know what to do next (and this is often), she brings in a new relative.

All right, the truth is coming out: The set-up of a kid pulled between Northern and Southern California, between flamenco and computer chips, isn’t enough to carry us through. Paul remains as a rat and a fink you want to cuddle up with, and it’s clear that if the book is to acquire any moral purpose or traction, then it has to be about Inez’s getting to a point where she can tell Paul’s neat, cool, kind, Robert Redford–ish manner to go to hell, because it’s a mask for selfishness of the most Californian kind.

But instead, The Ruins of California sinks into its own doldrums; very little happens, and Ms. Sherrill’s energy for her own writing seems more inclined to take a day at the beach. The situation succumbs to a listlessness that doesn’t know how to build a narrative, let alone one with an arc or a pay-off. So there I was, laboring from about page 100 onwards, noting with increasing irritation a few things that are wrong—like the weather in S.F. in October being awful. No, it is the best. Only my dedication to this pink paper kept me going. I fear many ordinary readers will let the book drift off, like a stale lei, long before its close.

Which would mean missing the last chapter. Of course, in the tradition of artful and kind book-reviewing, I can’t tell you what the last chapter discloses, except to say that a vehicle that had been coasting or floating suddenly hits the ground, gets close to tragedy and actually delivers the sensation of an Inez who might grow up (as opposed to passing from kid to granny at around 40—a not-uncommon trajectory).

You could say that it’s the last chapter from another book, one in which Ms. Sherrill’s facility with words at last takes on the purpose of knowing where she’s going. Where was she—where was her editor—during the long trek through the vast central wilderness of inertia? If only someone had been around to say, “Throw out the rest—rescue what’s necessary, maybe—but anyway, start with the last chapter.”

As for you, potential readers of this book, I would advise you earnestly, knowing what you know from this review, to go to the last section (it takes place in 1980) and dwell on the scathing view of Hawaii; take pleasure in the author’s confidence that her figures, her people, have at last become characters in a novel.

The promise here is immense, but for far too much of the time, The Ruins of California is like a lean synopsis at a writers’ conference, not a book where voice and pain have taken a good idea off to that private place of immense work, the place where novels come from.

David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer. Promising, Flawed Novel Yo-Yos From L.A. to S.F.