Thursday, July 15, 2010

Doomed at Point Dume

When I first heard about Katie Arnoldi’s latest novel, Point Dume, I thought Arnoldi must have invented the place name in the title to conjure up an eerie, edgy atmosphere. Oh, was I -- ever the East Coaster -- wrong. Point Dume is, according to Wikipedia, a promontory in Malibu, California. Which means Point Dume is a real place name that makes a great title for a novel.

The problem with great titles: they raise great reader expectations. I knew the book involved marijuana growing on public lands – there’s even a marijuana leaf on the cover – and I hoped for creepy, sleazy stuff with a noirish and, well, doomed feel. I got something a little different: a mixture of surfing, vineyards, abuse of controlled substances, family dysfunction, and community tensions… but not nearly as much pot growing and edginess as I wanted.

The best parts of the book come toward the end, when Arnoldi describes the loneliness of an illegal Mexican worker hired to tend pot crops: she finally draws people and nature into conflicts that go beyond her familiar old-timers-against-new-residents material. Point Dume read easily and quickly, perhaps because it felt less like a novel than five familiar back stories with varying narrative tones. If that’s your style, you’ll love the book. Pot and land use link everyone:

Ellis Gardner is a surfer and lifelong resident of Point Dume. A close narrator describes Ellis and her thoughts, many of which are rather uncharitable. The first paragraph of the book ends with “What she really needed was a new truck. Whatever.” Fine, whatever.

Pablo Schwartz has also lived in Point Dume for years. He seems most popular in town for selling pot under brands like Blueberry Madness; he pilfers it from farmers. Pablo has a thing for Ellis. Pablo’s story is told in the first person, with a sense of humor but some didacticism.

Frank may or may not have a last name. Frank is a BMW-driving vineyard owner whose wife Janice buys pot from Pablo. I’d say Frank and Janice drive each other a little crazy. Oh, Frank has a thing for Ellis, too. Frank and Janice get third-person narratives that include large doses of cliché and irony: Frank’s first chapter is called “Poor Frank,” and Janice’s is “Who is Janice?”

Felix Duarte is the Mexican worker who comes to Point Dume to earn money for his family by tending pot plants. Felix starts out sounding as typical as everyone else in Point Dume but his lack of companionship drives him to do some peculiar things. Arnoldi uses a neutral third-person narrative to describe Felix’s situation. He is, arguably, the book’s most sympathetic character.

Felix, Pablo, and their illegal activities kept me reading the book but they received far less ink than I thought they deserved: I’d already met everyone else -- and their stories -- many times in books, movies, and articles. I thought Arnoldi only began taking real writerly risks when Felix started to lose his mind and approach that frightening edge I’d been wanting to see. It’s too bad Arnoldi didn’t start the book about halfway in and given us more about marijuana farming and its many costs.

Disclosures: Thank you to Overlook Press for a review copy of Point Dume. I have discussed Russian literature in translation with Overlook.

Up next: Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass or Sofi Oksanen’s Purge… whichever entry I finish first.

Photo credit: aerial view of Point Dume from Chris McClave, via Wikipedia.

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