An American Classic: Carolyn See’s “Golden Days”

“Why I didn’t leave was food and love and sex and palm fronds, but let’s get serious.”
Golden Days by Carolyn See

Carolyn See’s brilliant, witty novel, Golden Days, is a neglected masterpiece.

Published in 1986, it was loved and lauded.   But books are forgotten quickly, and the fact that it defies genre may have worked against it.

It has been called a nuclear apocalypse  fantasy, but that is only one layer.  In this effervescent novel, an unconventional family in L.A. in the 1980s lives as joyously  as they can in the shadow of the imminent dropping of a nuclear bomb.

Carolyn See, a novelist, memoirist, and longtime book critic at The Washington Post,  died last year at the age of 82.  Her two  best novels, Golden Days and Making History, are philosophical,  moving, and gracefully-crafted.

The narrator of Golden Days, Edith Langley, has a  carpe diem attitude toward life.  A divorced mother in New York determined to escape the ghetto of consumer wives and reinvent herself as a financial consultant,  Edith moves back to her hometown of  L.A. with her two daughters by different fathers. Housing is expensive and they finally look in Topanga Canyon, where the steep curving roads are terrifying. Driving  in the Canyon is a risk Edith must take to achieve independence.  She observes,

I drove with the kids one dreadful morning into the San Fernando Valley and felt that if there had to be a nuclear war, it could do some good in this area.  I drove through Topanga Canyon, fifteen miles from the Valley to the coast (like Switzerland after the A-bomb, some friend of mine had said years before), hands sweating on the steering wheel as I took the curves, and had to think that maybe I wasn’t ready for the Canyon; maybe I didn’t have the nerve.  I braked at the Pacific, knowing that Malibu was north and no way could I afford it yet.  I turned south, looking for Venice… and headed–like a gerbil in a cage–back downtown.

Carolyn See

They find a cheap house on a cliff.  (It just sort of hangs there, but the view is breathtaking.) Soon she is teaching extension courses and  advising housewives to take control of their finances and invest in jewels, not paper. And then at a wedding she meets Skip Chandler, a banker/financial genius who has been living in Brazil with a paranoid wife who believes the U.S. is unsafe.  He has come back to L.A. because he thinks he is ill.  He moves in with Edith and her daughters.

He founds a bank and she becomes president (she listens a lot and learns).  And then they attend a kind of New Age business seminar because it is popular with their clients.   At first they think the leader is a huckster, but Lion turns out to be as charismatic and able to communicate joy as Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land who founds a church that teaches human happiness.  They learn that to get what they want they must first give it away, and then it comes back and multiplies.  (Or something like that.)  And then Skip is magically not  ill. And Edith reconnects with an old friend, Lorna, whom she knew at college long ago.  Lorna, who is Lion’s sometime lover,  has her own magical powers of healing.

There are wars and the end of the world does come.  But Edith, Skip, and her youngest daughter don’t leave L.A.  And they survives, at first in  much pain, but then they find joy.

And is there a more perfect paragraph than this?

Finally, it was the city that held us, the city they said had no center, that all of us had come to from all over America because this was the place to find dreams and pleasure and love.  I noticed–looking at headlines–that some cities emptied and some didn’t.  Ours didn’t, not completely. It may be argued, of course, that the hundreds of miles of desert that surrounded us had something to do with it, but I don’t think so.  (And if there was any rage I felt, outside the terror that periodically seized up my body like a Porsche engine running without oil, it was a fury that “they” were going to have the nerve to take our defenseless little adobe houses and turn them back to blowing dust.)  They said we were crazy to stay.  But then someone had always said we were crazy to be here in the first place.  And someone had always said Noah was crazy to build a boat in his desert, and  Lot had been crazy to pack up, on an impulse and head west.

Such a gorgeous, perfect book!  And it is still in print, published by University of California Press.

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