THE SMALL, DRY TOWNS that lead eastward from Los Angeles to Indio, across the lap of California, form an island chain in a sea of sand, each with its own biome and yet each enough like the other to form, in aggregate, one place. The chain is a kind of Galapagos, easily isolated by its natural isolation, and ripe for study. It is in this insular region that The Angry Buddhist, Los Angeles writer Seth Greenland's third novel, operates, studying closely the evolutionary winners and losers of the area. But of course any region, even a solidly organized body such as that grassy monolith, the American Midwest, is never really just one place. There are subtleties and shadings visible only to those with adapted eyes, and it is those subtleties that Greenland crafts into a wild social farce, dependent on fine distinctions.
In Britain, natives play parlor games identifying the hair's breadth between accents belonging to areas sometimes separated by a mere twenty miles. In California, an area rangy enough to fit all of the United Kingdom inside its borders, the game is played from town to town, with Los Angeles and San Francisco the big pieces on the board. North-South divides, however, are tired. The true division in the Golden State is between East and West. To exclude the rest of the country, and world, from insider status, to know California, you have to know the Inland Empire. There is no coastal town that can touch it for sheer drifter's romance. One can only know it through long and sometimes aching exposure to it, or by reading the words of someone who has suffered this exposure themselves. And the Inland Empire is exposing. There are few places on the West Coast that feel less shaded, no matter what kind of pencil you use for drawing it — the desert is extremity, an environment that can't be survived without shelter. As we know, and Greenland reminds us, "Winter nights the temperature drops to near freezing. Summers can get up to a hundred and twenty degrees." In other words, the internal temperature of a rare steak.
But flights of mercury are only the most obvious of the extremes that pull at each other out there past the Fontana Speedway. It is the human extremes that are Greenland's subject, and he captures the high and low end with a crafty gaze. He begins, logically, at the center, where there is plenty of shelter. Too much shelter. Too many ways to hide, to screen the rich from the glare of culpability, and of their own failings. Before Southern California was divided into cantons with monograms for names — OC, IE, YL, NB, and SD — there was PS. Palm Springs. "P.S., I Love You," says the Chamber of Commerce merch site. But a bumper sticker can't cover the greater Desertopolis area; to take that in, a wide screen is needed, wide enough for the Vistavision picture that the topography demands. Greenland shows us the tended sprawl radiating from the neighborhoods that swaddle Palm Canyon Drive, cozy and secure all the way out Highway 111 past Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and Palm Desert. How delicately those place names fall off the tongues of the seasonal resident, the winterer from Chicago or Greenwich. But the real cities are there in summer just as in winter, and the names are spoken by locals, often with a harder bite. These are the points that interest The Angry Buddhist — Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Twentynine Palms — where anger, not Buddhism, is the habit that citizens can afford. Says Greenlan...read more