Ordinarily, I don't review books written before 1960, even if they are set in an earlier time. I made an exception for Love and War in California. Partly that was because the publisher's publicist sent me a review copy (an unprecedented event). But mostly it was due to the fact that the author, Oakley Hall, who will turn 87 in July, wrote a half-dozen novels with California settings in the 1950s. One has a similar story. Why, I wondered would Hall return to autobiographical material after a 54-year hiatus during which he made a formidable literary reputation for novels set elsewhere? I read the book and still don't know the answer.
Love and War in California by Oakley Hall. St. Martin's Press (2007), 280 pp.
Aspiring author Payton Daltry, a junior at San Diego State, is told to base his fiction on experiences from his own life. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, everyone he knows provides something new to write about. His universally admired older brother Richie, assigned by the Navy to fly dive bombers, leaves town without explaining why he quit a promising job in Hollywood following the suicide of a girlfriend. Bonny Bonnington, a surprisingly attractive friend from Payton's ritzy old neighborhood, turns to him for help when she finds herself pregnant by her newly enlisted boyfriend. Meanwhile, Payton's father is trying to regain self-esteem by joining the Seabees, one of his high school friends is facing removal to a relocation camp, and his boss at a socialist newspaper is coping with threats from the American Legion. While these and other characters attempt to work out their wartime problems, Payton confronts recurring questions about his reluctance to enter military service. The story develops during the first two-thirds of the book. The final eighty pages serve as a long epilogue containing episodes from Payton's life between 1942 and 1986.
In this autobiographical novel Hall revisits not only his own life but also a previous fictional account of it. The book essentially adds a new section to Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953), one that recounts the experiences of its protagonist (Payton Daltry in this version) during the six months after Pearl Harbor. Hall portrays this period, during which the United States was suffering a string of defeats in the Pacific, as a jittery time for Americans. The book's characters are unsure what sort of changes the war will bring to their lives. The earlier novel, as might be expected of fiction from the 1950s, aimed at psychological insight. This one focuses more on social issues. Payton confronts racial prejudice, class disparities, homelessness, abortion, prostitution, government deception, and intolerance of political dissent. (Hall seems to move the zoot-suit riots up a year so they can be included too.) Payton even obtains a small glimpse of the film industry after meeting Errol Flynn. Readers get a lot to think about and many characters to keep track of. The final eighty pages are perhaps digressive, though they do bring the story full circle. All in all, the book provides both an engrossing read and an enlightening, participant's perspective on the home front during World War II. It is especially recommended to those who like to read new fiction about the past.