Friday, October 07, 2011

Lunch Bucket Paradise

The good folks at Heyday Books sent along Fred Setterberg's Lunch Bucket Paradise, which I finished reading today. As the title implies, this "true-life novel" and coming-of-age story depicts a particular kind of hog heaven: the East Bay suburbs between World War II and Vietnam.

Some of this ground has been covered (though quite differently) by San Lorenzo native Curtis White in his first novel The Idea of Home. Here our first-person narrator is the son of a Scandinavian mechanic at the Alameda Naval Air Station and an Italian (and very Catholic) housewife. The boy's rites of passage are queued up and handled in order: friends (and their scraps), catechism, yard work, Boy Scouts, gigs, girls, warehouse work, more girls, and finally the prospect of conscription.

I'm a little belated--maybe ten years younger than Setterberg's hero--and raised a few miles north in El Cerrito, but I found the world of this novel familiar territory. If you remember Juan Marichal, Doughboy swimming pools, Archie comic books, Brylcreem, Rice-a-Roni, Rainier ale, and the pleasures of discovering James Brown (for me it was also Tower of Power), you'll probably relate to this fictive world, too.

The novel isn't tightly plotted--several chapters were published in serial form, and it reads more like s series of connected but self-contained sketches. Its pleasures are hitched to the coming-of-age theme, first in the shadow of World War II and then in dread of Vietnam. There's also the specific and unmistakable sense of place. Finally, there's the post-war, California version of unterrified Jeffersonianism, perhaps best embodied by the boy's father, a self-educated, free-thinking family man who wants better for his son. It's not exactly the myth of the happy yeoman, but it's pretty close, and for me it has the ring of truth.

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