cover image Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California

Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California

Bill Barich. Pantheon Books, $24 (546pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42151-1

Barich, a writer for the New Yorker whose best-known work is a splendid account of the horse-racing world, Laughing in the Hills , has created a highly original book out of a tired idea. Would you believe that anyone could wring fresh interest from exploring the highways and byways of our most-written-about state? Think again. Barish is a deceptively quiet companion, who can fill your ear effortlessly with as many often eccentric facts as John McPhee, enjoy as many offbeat encounters as William Least Heat Moon ( Blue Highways ) and give his travels a personal, idiosyncratic twist like Jonathan Raban's Old Glory . What comes across most strongly in his portrait of a state he accurately assesses as being a part of almost every American's dreams is the elusiveness of that dream for most of those actually living there. Environmental slaughter, plummeting air quality, soulless subdivisions, regrets for lost Edens and dangerously abrupt divisions between rich and poor are much of his stuff; but Barich has a richly accepting eye, too, for what remains of the natural wonder that has dazzled generations of visitors. As adept at sketching the weather and topography of California's many regions as he is at offering bits of economics and sociology, Barish also employs a beautifully fluid style. There is much pleasure in learning the great deal he has to teach us about this endlessly self-indulgent, aspiring place; and if there are occasional miscalculations--we don't really need another rehash of Charles Manson's crimes--they only serve to accentuate the originality, even daring, of most of the book. (May)