By Jerry Griswold
While the movie “Sideways” presented Santa Barbara as the regional capitol of mid-life wine tasting, it has also been a place where writers have come and set up shop for over 150 years. These have included Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Wallace Stegner, Kenneth Rexroth, Randall Jarrell, T.C. Boyle, John Sayles, Gretel Erlich, and many others.
Writers have also written about the place. One of the first was Kate Douglas Wiggin (best known for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) who found Santa Barbara a “tropical revelation” after moving from snowy Maine. Among the more recent is Pico Iyer, travel writer and sometime resident of the city, who described Santa Barbara as “softer than L.A. but harder than Santa Cruz.”
If you’re going to Santa Barbara, let me suggest a way to devise a literary tour. Before you go, read Steven Gilbar’s anthology collection Santa Barbara Stories (paperback, John Daniel and Co.). There you will find an entire gallery of Santa Barbara characters populating stories written by many of the writers listed above. Then, in a kind of scavenger hunt or a self-designed literary tour, go there (as I did) with a mission: to look for those characters and see how they fared.
Take Ross MacDonald’s story, “Find the Woman,” from the 1940s: “Mrs. Dreen was over forty and looked it, but there was electricity in her… Look how high and tight I carry my body, her movements said. My hair is hennaed but comely, said her coiffure…. Her eyes were green and inconstant like the sea. They said what the hell.” Mrs. Dreen is long gone, but her forty-year-old counterpart can still be seen in Santa Barbara today. With a great tan and great body, she chats amiably with protestors who show up outside the post office.
John Sayles’ story, “Old Spanish Days,” on the other hand, came out of the political 1970s and concerns Amado, an undocumented Mexican dishwasher who worries about being caught by INS. What happened to him? Amado married and now his daughter passes time with a posse of school friends, eating salted-caramel ice cream outside the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center.
Then there’s T.C. Boyle’s “She Wasn’t Soft,” which gives a picture of Santa Barbara in the 1990s by means of a clash between two personalities. The title refers to Paula, an ultra-marathoner with nearly no body fat; she’s all discipline and lives on sports drinks and carbo-loading. Jason, her boyfriend, is a slacker who runs a surf shop; baggy shorts and beer belly, for him it’s all-night drinking and no discipline whatsoever.
Of course, that was 1994 when, as Boyle writes, everyone was talking about “Tommy Lasorda, O.J. and Proposition 187.” Now, twenty years later, what has become of them?
I found Jason in a Hawaiian shirt, hunched over a laptop, at the Santa Barbara Roasting Company on State and Gutierrez Streets. Coffee in hand, he’s there every morning to take advantage of the free wireless connection and run his business on Ebay.
And Paula? If you’re traveling to Santa Barbara and engaged in my kind of literary scavenger hunt, look for her at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings at the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota Streets. She’s the beautiful woman buying flowers, wearing baggy pants, with rings on her toes. She moves with an enviable grace and ease. No longer the ultra-marathoner of Boyle’s story “She Wasn’t Soft,” Paula has become a yoga instructor.
Jerry Griswold writes occasionally for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. His next book, Audacious Kids, appears this Fall.