October 09, 2008

The Crippling Nostalgia of Naranjastan


Four years ago, when my brother moved back behind the Orange Curtain to salacious San Clemente, I visited him often, fleeing cohabitational post-grad bliss in Santa Barbara every other weekend to be a tourist in the orange land of my birth. It was easy and fun, especially when I had a ready-made bachelor crash-pad in Bryn's front room. We talked too much and drank a little less than that and played guitars and bitched about random crap, just like the way we used to at UCSB, and the next afternoon we'd lug our hung-over selves out to Sunrise or Wahoo's or whatever other place would serve over-fed gabacho man-boys.

All of these places had one thing in common: a battered pile of OC Weekly papers lying somewhere on the premeses. One time I began reading the paper at random, and a particular image caught my eye: a wretched, horrifying caricature of a human being, grinning with gold teeth and a twenty-gallon sombrero, perched above a column titled ¡Ask a Mexican! and unlike many of the column's readers, I laughed my ass off after the very first read. The column itself has long since become famous, of course, firmly installing its devious creator, Anaheim's own Gustavo Arrellano, on the Z-list of socio-political commentators and the A-list of pinche snarkologists.

Other than reading a few scattered instances of it, though, I slipped into an alternate dimension of oblivious stupidity and mostly forgot about the column entirely—well, he did a great OC Weekly investigative series on the Catholic diocese of Orange, but I never bothered to read the byline—and evidently in the interim, Arrellano has gone mega, thanks to the book version of ¡Ask a Mexican! and the way he went all Oscar Acosta on those boy-buggering priests. Jeez, the things you miss when you tune out the Colbert Report for a few months. Anyway, I was happily surprised to (almost literally) stumble on Gustavo's second book, Orange County: A Personal History, and I can't emphasize how much better my world is because of this.

I mean, I know that the nostalgic impulse is universally human, but it seemed to hit me especially hard as I crossed the 30-year mark in 2006. Hell, my favorite film of the past five years is easily Rian Johnson's OC-noir movie Brick. I even started my own book while under this baleful influence: a semi-fictional piece of gonzo juvenalia called the Weapon of Young Gods. I re-trenched and re-compiled a decade's worth of my own quasi-journalistic crap in blog format. I embarrassed my self in print and pixel many times over.

Thanks to Arrellano's book, though, I know that I'm not the only one in thrall to the slow creep of crippling nostalgia. His Orange County is full of strange rumblings in Aztlán; a deft combination of frank, poignant personal memoir and gloriously reviciousnist history, it explores his family's roots in both Zacatecas and Anaheim, against a backdrop of John-Wayne-Birch-Disney-Dornan-Saigon-Surf City-Citrus-Coto OC insanity. His family anecdotes and extended epics fit—obviously and perfectly—into the eternal continuum of American Borgification that has chewed up and spat out every immigrant group from the Pilgrims to the Irish to the Chinese to the far-flung scions of El Cargadero, Mexico. Arrellano pulled me in with his incessant localized appeals to my inner history-geography-culture nerdiness, and it worked like gangbusters.

But hey, that's just my overeducated, South County liberal guilt poking through, ¿qué no? Of course it is, but frankly the book is awesome—and for me, this can be handily explained away by some perfect, and perfectly random, observations from Gustavo:

1) Everyone from Mission Viejo is a jerk. In my experience (both in childhood AYSO soccer and civic government-contract flunkie) this is absolutely true, with one screaming exception: my friend Steve Foster only pretends to be a jerk. Sometimes.
2) Aliso Viejo is the worst city in Orange County. Again, also true. Forget culture shock—this place is in a fucking culture coma.
3) The only club in high school worth joining is the Kiwanis Bowl. Muchísima verdadera (did I say that right?). I myself was part of the Dana Hills K-Bowl squad of nerds, and though we never went up against any Anaheim schools in the heady days of 1994-95, we did kick the shit out of some dingbats from Los Alamitos.
4) All the recent TV shows about Orange County are both truer and falser than you could ever imagine. And they all suck, too, except for Arrested Development.
5) Religion in this county—of any faith or denomination—is fucked up.
6) Surfer-brats are assholes. I would believe that even if they hadn't figured out my name rhymed with "queer" in 7th grade.
7) The "Mexicans" are always more American than the "Americans." I learned that one via a family from Michoacán who lived across the street from us in the Dana Point of my youth.

I could go on, but my three loyal readers would probably bitch and moan and never realize that I (and probably Gustavo too) kid because we love. Well, probably not in the religion department, but whatever, dude. Those are merely superficial swipes from a book that—for something written by a man made semi-famous via cutting satire—presents a brilliant portrait of a specific time and place: the last century of explosions in a less-than-idyllic seaside enclave. My favorite novels are ones where the author nails a setting perfectly and completely—Dublin, L.A., Manila, wherever—but in this case of non-fiction, I can speak from personal experience that Gustavo Arrellano nails Orange County to the wall so hard that it won't be coming off anytime soon.

So nice job, you skinny brown geek. We all need to walk tall and kick ass these days. Make sure you turn out the lights when you leave the Weekly's stinking, sold-out carcass behind you.

Cross-posted: dkos, fsz (sort of)

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