Down in the Valley

West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State BY Mark Arax. PublicAffairs. Hardcover, 368 pages. $26.

Most Californians know the inland agricultural heartland of their state as a smoggy blur. Travelers race through it north and south at eighty miles per hour on Interstate 5, windows rolled up to block the stench of thousands of cattle on megaranches. The rest of the country takes fleeting note of the long, flat San Joaquin Valley only during a periodic food-contamination scare—E. coli–laced spinach, say, or raw milk linked to sick children. In his new collection of essays and reporting, Mark Arax tells us what we are missing.

Arax has a native son’s knowledge of the Central Valley, that part of California that is not mountain or coast, not city or redwood grove. He knows which local politicians turned land sales into a giant Ponzi scheme, which cranks have real political power, and which bureaucrats get things done. And he knows who their daddies were. For most of his twenty-five-year career at the Los Angeles Times, Arax was based in Fresno, a blazing-hot farm town whose culture and politics have “more in common with Oklahoma City than with Los Angeles.” A public feud with an editor drove Arax out of the newsroom two years ago. Now, boxes of old notebooks fill his garage.

To read West of the West is to sit with Arax as he opens those notebooks, shaking loose the contents. Out tumble organically grown marijuana buds, Dust Bowl refugees who journeyed west seventy years ago to pick cotton, cow dung that may or may not be polluting the food supply, and many bunches of freshly dried raisins. These stories, most previously published in the Times, constitute a kind of guidebook to the dark, ruthless underground economy that employs many of California’s least glamorous citizens—and plenty of noncitizens as well.

West of the West delivers the dreamers, believers, builders, and killers its subtitle promises. Arax gets inside their houses and looks around. He reports from the porch of a Humboldt County farmhouse where a marijuana orchard shines in the moonlight and a drug deal takes hours because everyone is high. He describes the suburban Los Angeles split-level where the immigrant king of a chain of fast-food chicken restaurants has just shot his mother, his sister, and himself. And he pauses outside a trailer deep in the raisin-grape vineyards near Fresno, where a destitute and pregnant Mexican-immigrant mother of four has just learned her husband is dead.

The moment at the trailer door occurs in the book’s most affecting essay, adapted from a yearlong reporting project for the Times’s West magazine. Arax and photographer Matt Black followed the farmworker’s widow, Veronica Diaz, and her extended family for a year. They tagged along to Mexico as she buried her husband in a mountain village, while back in California, “the fields, like a great heaving oven, exhaled their 265,000 tons of sun-baked raisins, and tens of thousands of peasant workers suddenly lost their jobs.” When Arax visits two of Diaz’s children in the Central Valley, where they live with the woman’s sister in a dilapidated shack, he finds the six-year-old spending the morning scrubbing clothes clean on a slab of broken concrete. He opens the refrigerator and notes the eggs, beef, and rice. Months later, he finds Diaz red-eyed and hungry, the food almost gone. Arax leaves us in another grape arbor, where Diaz has found a means to survive: putting curved blades into the hands of her children, who hack at the vines to help their mother keep up with the other workers.

Arax has a talent for outrage that is well suited to this material, and he’s drawn to quirky personalities and conspiracies that lead to good stories. But these useful traits become wearying in several essays, particularly one about disagreements over the Iraq war in which he seems more of a participant than a bystander. Indeed, Arax is not content to let his material speak for itself and steps outside the narratives to deliver bitter asides: on the neoconservative ideologues who hatched the invasion of Iraq, for instance, and the management of the Times, and the Turks who conducted the genocide against Armenian citizens—and sent his immigrant grandfather into the California interior nearly one hundred years ago.

The book’s final chapter and epilogue lend some insight into the book’s simmering resentfulness; both concern family history. Arax’s father, Ara, was murdered when the author was fifteen. Two men shot Ara and then fled without stealing anything—Arax believed the killing was carried out to silence his father, who had been threatening to report drug dealing to the authorities. Arax investigated the case and wrote a book about it but couldn’t find the killers. Years later, after an arrested drug smuggler finally decides to talk, the author learns the mundane truth—the shooting was a random robbery gone awry.

Unsatisfied, Arax tracks down one of the parties to the crime. “Are you here as a son or as a writer?” she asks. “The answer was my life,” Arax writes. “I wanted to tell her that the son had become a writer on account of murder. He had practiced and honed all the skills of journalistic investigation across a long career for just this one moment. Son, murder, writer—we were one.”

In this scene, Arax becomes a typical character in his California: suspicious, striving, burdened by history, yet determined to build something new. In West of the West, he puts his personal tragedy to good use by giving these tough characters a landscape, narratives, and voices. Their stories are well worth pulling off the interstate to hear.

Sonya Geis is the producer of Which Way, LA? on KCRW public radio. She also coproduces the national news program To the Point.