Book Review by Jennifer Silva Redmond
In 1974, a novel called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, was published by Robert M. Pirsig and went on to become a modern classic. In his review of the book in The New Yorker that same year, George Steiner stated that the book was “densely put together. It lurches, with a deliberate shift of its grave ballast, between fiction and philosophic discourse… It lodges in the mind as few recent novels have, deepening its grip, compelling the landscape into unexpected planes of order and menace.”
I recently read Last Days in Ocean Beach ($14.95, CityWorks Press, April 2018) by Jim Miller and I can already tell this is the sort of novel that “lodges in the mind,” not to mention making me see, in my landscape, both “order and menace.”
The looming menace is climate change and the extinction of species due to global warming and all the ecological (and economic) disasters that comes with it. The book’s protagonist, William, is a scientist working at a local think tank, trying to bring Joe Q Public—immersed in our fast-food-and-fast-cars culture—out of his La-Z-Boy and spur him to action.
The book’s setting is the naturally beautiful but somewhat seedy town of Ocean Beach, on the literal edge of this country. As the Pacific Ocean beats at the coastline outside his door, William—and the denizens of the other tiny beachside studio apartments like the one he dwells in—simply try to make it through each day. Not all of the other characters are contemplating such crucially important themes as William, but each of them is facing the end of something.
Miller can really write, and he knows what he’s talking about. A college professor of both English and Labor Studies, his previous books (including the vital and gritty novel Flash) have all taken on issues of social justice in some way; the book he co-wrote with Kelly Mayhew and Mike Davis, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See reveals the underbelly of the tourist-magnet we call home. Reading Last Days in Ocean Beach, I was reminded of lines from the Eagles’ song “The Last Paradise” — “Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
Don’t expect to get immediately grabbed by the action in this book—Miller eschews the contemporary trend of catering to the basest instincts of readers by throwing corpses, shoot-outs, or nude bodies into chapter one (often page one). No, this reading experience is slower-paced and more gradual—like meeting an odd and eccentric character on a cross-country bus ride, where first impressions soon give way to grudging respect, and eventually to heartfelt admiration.
Unlike Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this slim novel won’t require weeks of reading time, and, once I was hooked, I found it hard to put down. I hope that the young people I hear from who say they “don’t really read novels,” will invest a few hours in the pleasure of well-chosen words, deeply considered ideas, and meaningful conversations. The subject could not be more important for them —and for all of us on the planet—and the time to learn to care about it is now.
Last Days in Ocean Beach by Jim Miller ($14.95, CityWorks Press, April 2018). Buy the book at at Verbatim Books in North Park and Book Catapult in South Park. Or find it at the City Works Press website at Meet the author at Tiger!Tiger! tavern in North Park on May 6th from 4-7. He will also be doing a fundraiser for San Diego 350, an environmental group, on May 12th from 4-6 PM at Torque Moto Café in North Park.
|North Park's Verbatim Books|