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One Flaw Over the Cuckoo's State

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Thurston Clarke chases the California dream down the San Andreas

By Traci Hukill

MAYBE I'M SLOW, but the pun escaped me at first. It took a couple of chapters into California Fault to realize that Thurston Clarke was writing about California's "flaw," and that the author's travels down the San Andreas fault in morbid pursuit of earthquakes provided a more or less tidy framework for his informal study of the disintegrating California dream.

It's a well-researched book, full of history and sufficient scientific fact, rendered understandable by Clarke's easygoing prose, to make a reader feel smug bringing up earthquakes at a party. It also bears the unmistakable stamp of a travel writer: compelling descriptions of places and a fascination with local characters who remind you of folks you've seen in the movies.

Take the theatrical Jane Cryan, a bohemian San Franciscan who moved to California when Jack Kerouac answered her fan mail. Clarke finds her passionately crusading to save shacks erected as refugee housing after the 1906 earthquake, and he wisely devotes an entire chapter to this beautiful, crazy woman and her comically dignified sidekick, Captain Spaulding.

Or consider Jim Berkland, a geologist who predicted the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake using, among other data, a sharp increase in the number of cats reported missing in the San Jose area. When Berkland appears on the game show You Bet Your Life and Bill Cosby asks what he does for a living, he replies, "I predict earthquakes." (He and his partner won, by the way.)

Eccentrics, grumps and nuts crowd the pages of the book, but mainly as roadside attractions. Clarke spills a good deal of ink on his seismic obsession, much of it lucid and informative, although in places, the recounting of facts and history gets a little viscous. He dwells overlong on eyeball-popping images of destruction left in the wake of past temblors, for instance, but jaded Californians can perhaps forgive this trespass since Clarke hails from the enviably stable Adirondacks.

What Clarke does wonderfully is unearth the subculture of quake prediction, from Berkland's lost-cat ledger to the Old Faithful geyser of Calistoga and, best of all, an "earthquake-sensitive" man whose headaches precede seismic events. Clarke's fascination with earthquakes and desire to experience one, after all, determine his risky route down the coast, and the San Andreas is literally an organic part of the story.

EARTHQUAKES and ancestors aside, though, Clarke's real intent is to discover California for himself, to reconcile his long-cherished fantasy of a utopian, suntanned West Coast with alarming reports of rising crime, population and unemployment. From the moment he sets foot in Eureka, just north of where the San Andreas fault wades ashore, until he reaches the Salton Sea, where the venerable seismic troublemaker fractures into a complex of threadlike rifts, Clarke finds communities at odds.

In Northern California, it's newcomers (recent arrivals from Southern California trying to recapture California and keep it for themselves this time) versus ranchers and loggers who've been there for generations. They clash over land use and development issues, but hypocritically, they agree on immigration policy and the unsavory inconvenience of all those non-English-speaking children crowding the public schools. The feuding in some of these towns gets vicious, and the air is thick with tension and threats.

Farther south along the Central Coast, Clarke finds greedy development companies littering the cliffs with flimsy, expensive houses. Again, many of their inhabitants are refugees from the sprawl downstate. As Clarke approaches L.A., he discovers the desperation that spawns the mass exodus northward--the acres of tract housing and gated communities, neighbors' indifference to anything happening beyond their yards, the bleak utilitarian layout of overcrowded cities. To his credit, Clarke continues to find wonderful people on his journey south, but the message is clear: The California dream is dying. Look into land in Arkansas.

One of California Fault's triumphs is its lack of pretense. Clarke's voice is thoughtful, moderate and trustworthy. He packs no agenda and gains insight and depth with each chapter. This is a book that entertains with its continuously shifting scenes and characters while it quietly loads the table with food for thought--a good book for any Californian whose yard is too close to her neighbor's and who sometimes wonders what went wrong.


California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas
By Thurston Clarke
Ballantine Books; 417 pages; $24 cloth

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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