California Is Full of Sh–t

And So Is Zócalo’s Regular Columnist. Inspired by the Oscar-Nominated American Fiction, I’m Taking Over This Column to Deliver Hard Truths

Californians are living in a fiction factory, writes Vic T.R. Frisbee, who isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to the Golden State or this column’s previous author, Joe Mathews. Cropped photo of American Fiction film poster. Courtesy of Amazon/MGM.

I walked by Billy Hearst’s old headquarters in L.A.’s stinking downtown, chatting up the bums and streetwalkers. Turned out I was married to one of the gals back in ’02, but neither of us remembered much about it.

Then, while dodging dog poop on Broadway, I ran into that rare species of homo sapiens: an editor. Felt sorry for her immediately. She’s doing a years-long sentence, without possibility of parole, editing the dull intellectual scribbler whose high-minded copy usually occupies this space. His drivel might as well be a balloon of lead. (And I ain’t talking about the hot kind of lead that Dirty Harry shot at, lucky punks.)

I asked her to go with me for a drink, right then and there. After one or three bebidas, we agreed to evict that bastard Joe from this space right away.

Now you’ve got me as your columnist. Go ahead and applaud.

You, the bored readers of the previous columnist’s twaddle, deserve something spicier, like a Szechuan-Yucatan burrito. You deserve a voice that speaks your language, that reminds you what you already know, and tells you what to hear—all the things most people want in a column these days.

You don’t need some pointy-headed Pasadena teetotaler telling you what he thinks you should know about, rather than what you want to know. You don’t want to be stuck with some columnist who pontificates about Polish literature, French philosophy, or—I thought he’d never stop—participatory democracy.

In these political times, you need a columnist whose allegiances are dependable. You could never tell whether my snot-nosed predecessor was a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, or a Ukrainian Green. Maybe he himself didn’t know. People also want a columnist who speaks not just for himself but for a gender, a race, an ethnicity, or a demographic. The previous columnist might be Scots-Irish or Okie or Creek Indian or Chinese or not even American at all—I never could really follow.

All his misdirection was exhausting.

And you can retweet that, porfas.

Unlike the other guy, I’m one of you. I didn’t go to Harvard or a snotty private school across the street from Caltech. I cut my teeth on the streets of Bakersfield. You won’t catch me reading anything but paperback mysteries—I’m a sportsman and a hustler, though since I got some bank and hang with pretty people, they call me a philanthropist.

The line between fiction and truth here is even thinner than our movie stars.

I’m the sort of the character that, if reporter-types ever wanted to represent the voice of John Q. Public, they’d have to invent me.

I decided to reclaim these precious column inches after seeing a funny little flick called American Fiction. Caught it at a matinee at the Maya, which you really should check out next time you’re speeding up 99 through Kern County. Movie is about a lost-up-his-own-butt type, a professor-writer named Monk. He’s Black but otherwise, he reminds me of your former columnist—he writes books about aesthetics and ideas that no one would ever read.

Then he gets drunk and gets wise and writes a real-world book, about a Black man named Stagg R. Leigh who is running from the law. It’s fiction, but he passes it off as real. That’s the kind of thing editors say I can never do in a column.

He first calls the book My Pafology. But then he decides to change it to something simpler, F—k. That inspired me to rename this column. What the hell did “Connecting California” mean? First I thought to go with “Streets of Bakersfield,” as homage to Buck and Merle. But during an afternoon at my local cannabis lounge, I decided to call it “California S—t.” More fitting.

American Fiction got five more Oscar nominations than the old version of this column, which never won anything better than third place at the LA Press Club. Most of it takes place in Boston, but it goes back to L.A. when this Hollywood producer Wiley, played by that sweet Jewish kid from The O.C., decides to make F—k into his latest film (his last two were called Middle Passage and Plantation Annihilation). Wiley spent a month in jail on a drug charge, and it changed him.

“That experience grounded me,” he tells Monk, who he thinks is Stagg R. Leigh. “The people I met in there allowed me to see a whole new world of underrepresented stories from underrepresented storytellers.”

Monk has to keep pretending to be Stagg, the writer-fugitive, to make a $4 million deal with Wiley. Monk is an obvious fake—he orders white wine in a restaurant—but he gets away with it because Wiley is so easy to fool. Californians will believe anything, which maybe is how my predecessor held onto this column for 11 years.

Course, it’s hard to know whether you find more truth in fiction or the real world. The old columnist here would probably quote Twain now, because he loves that 19th-century crap no one reads anymore: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” But as a sportsman of the people, I give you Stephen King, who said that “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

King’s words go double-double for California. The line between fiction and truth here is even thinner than our movie stars.

Speaking of actors, you might say the Golden State’s biggest industry is producing fictions. Silicon Valley makes the tech to export the fictions Hollywood creates.

A more cynical way to put all this is that California is full of, well, “s—t.” Which means Californians, living in this fiction factory, confront more flavors of BS than Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins ever managed at their Glendale ice cream parlor.

When you’re enveloped in fictions, it can be hard to see the truth. You’re left with a choice among fictions—the same choice that Wiley and Monk face in American Fiction, when they debate how to end their movie within a movie. Should they just fade to black, and let the audience decide? Or should they provide a romantic, crowd-pleasing pose?

Eventually, they land on an ending that both surprises and perfectly expresses why we should be forgiving, of authors and ourselves, when fiction is used to fool us. Because these days it’s just too hard to distinguish between the real writer, and the fake the real writer dreams up.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.