I once heard Oakley Hall say that (I’m paraphrasing) he likes to write about things that piss him off. I don’t know enough about his life to know how autobiographical Love and War in California is, but if Payton Daltry is even a semi-approximate match for his creator, Hall is plenty pissed and has been for quite a while. His targets include a worthy roster of villains–the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee), the Japanese Internment, bigotry, and overweening authority figures of all kinds. Daltry encounters all of these forces and many more during his late adolescence, which coincides with the eruption of World War II. The “many more” include the corrupting influences of wealth and fame in the form of Errol Flynn and various shenanigans of the Hollywood hoi polloi.
Hall’s deftly constructed situation posits Daltry as a member of an integrated San Diego high school’s football team, then follows the fortunes of a multi-racial group of that team through the tribulations of the buildup to and beginnings of the conflagration. Daltry’s sensitivities build and ignite along with the injustices visited upon his non-white friends and as the bigotry of some of his white friends increases. The plot also includes plenty of intriguing short- and long-term romance. One key incident during a late-night pacific highway late-night drive is among the most vivid love scenes I’ve ever read.
Love and California is more than a coming-of-age novel, though, for it follows its protagonist through a successful, if offbeat, career into some unexpected middle-aged fame. I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that the young man’s principles do not erode over the years, even though their form and expression change. If that sentence seems oxymoronic on the page, you’d better read the novel. In Oakley Hall’s hands the experience of it makes sense.
Though the book stands on its own, I have to say that it is an even more remarkable achievement for a man in his eighties who has had both knees replaced and still gets out on the tennis court regularly, still plays an active role in one of the most respected writer’s workshops in the country (The Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which he founded), and has fostered the careers of so many fine authors (try Alice Siebold, Michael Chabon, Amy Tan for starters) to still turn out writing of this quality on a regular basis. In a book jacket blurb, Chabon calls him “our greatest living master” of “that epic romance of disillusion and of promise betrayed.” I have a list of people I want to be like when I get old(er). He’s at the top.