Big Dreams

California has fostered a disproportionate chunk of American mythology. Full of cowboys and hippies and sex therapists and film stars, liberal Republicans and late night talk-show hosts and Disneyland, California bears the burden of being held responsible for the fulfillment of big dreams. Writer Bill Barich, a Long Islander by birth, came West in 1969 with his own expectations and managed to have them sufficiently met. Twenty years later he was still in San Francisco, brooding over a more highly evolved set of expectations. In the hope of taking stock of himself, Barich set out to take stock of his adopted home state.

Barich’s route takes the reader from the Oregon border to the Mexican border, covering what seems like every square mile—inhabited or otherwise—of the long, topologically variegated and socially divided state. Taking his cue from John Steinbeck, Barich records his journey in terms of the people with whom he spoke, mingled with glimpses of regional history and geography and his own personal reflections. His tone is witty but despairing in describing the erosion of the wilderness, the lost livelihoods and doomed neighborhoods, the superficiality and materialism. Where he discovers rural serenity, bulldozers are never far behind. Yet where he finds urban pretensions, crime, and confusion he also perceives humanity.

Barich’s description of Los Angeles is especially ruthless and hilarious. He seems awestruck by the vapidity of such events as a poetry reading at hot spot Cafe Largo in which one poet repeatedly slaps himself in the face. At every turn, he sees the territorial real estate markings of the mysterious and ubiquitous Fred Sands, and he is reminded constantly of the ecstatic hope and dissipation of Dennis Wilson. BIG DREAMS is about the romance of disillusionment.