The California Book of the Dead

Tim Farrington’s first novel has no central character; many of the characters take on leading roles at some point. Action centers around the characters’ shared home in San Francisco’s Mission District. As the novel opens, Marlowe and Daa, two female lovers, consider the (de)merits of applicants for the room vacated by the death of Jackson, their close friend, whose memory pervades the entire book. Resolution of the dilemma of choosing among the unsuitable candidates comes in the form of Sheba McKenzie, Marlowe’s cousin, who arrives from Virginia seeking spiritual enlightenment. Close on her heels is Victor, whom she had promised long ago to marry.

The novel is largely about the characters’ love lives, but at a deeper level it is about life itself and how people find meaning. Sheba investigates various philosophies, starting with that of the Institute of Health and Immortality. Jack Soft Hands, another housemate and firm believer in the institute, lures her into taking classes there as he becomes her lover. Later, the institute crumbles and Sheba falls for Chris Scorich, the translator for a Tibetan spiritual leader.

In the meantime, Marlowe finds herself pursued by Dante McDonalds Pruitt, a musician who is setting THE INFERNO to music. He declares that romantic love is too “messy,” but his actions belie his words. Dante finds his spirituality in music; Marlowe follows no program avidly but is working on painting a tarot deck that helps at first to heal her relationship with Daa but later separates them.

Although Farrington treats some New Age philosophies and rituals cynically, he does show how people can use them to their benefit. By the end of the year or so covered in the novel, each of the characters has found personal meaning in one way or another, after suffering through various tragedies. The book is light-hearted in approach and sprinkled with gems of description, such as a vacation that is “like a mobile mental breakdown conducted in motel rooms” or the acquaintance that Marlowe found “like Mexican water . . . in even the smallest doses could make her sick.”