California wears its label of "the home of the reinvented" well. You show up, settle in on the edge of the country and you are no longer you. At least that's the goal. Truth is, you drag your lonesome self like a loaded steamer trunk wherever you go. You arrive "facing east," as Jackson Browne once sang, and there you are, in the Golden State, but not so shiny and bright.
And so it is with the characters in Don Lee's mostly entertaining novel, "Wrack & Ruin." Meet Lyndon Song, who is Korean- and Chinese-American, a once-famous sculptor from New York City who now eschews art for a path of diminished expectations on his 25-acre Brussels sprouts farm.
Oh, and there is this little patch of high-grade marijuana, too, but strictly for personal recreational use. Like many farmers, Song tends to obsess a bit. He worries in the night -- about "life, money, weeds and aphids, sparks and puddles and slag, sex, his aloneness, cormorants and least terns, reality TV." He also is extremely accident prone. (Pot will do that to you.)
The nearest town is Rosarita Bay on Highway 1, and it appears to take its inspiration from the real Half Moon Bay. (Maybe it's the pumpkin festival.) NIMBYs have ruled the day but now there's a new spirit of entrepreneurship in town. Song's little Brussels sprouts-sinsemilla farm happens to be ground zero in a development fight. Seems a bunch of mean-spirited USC alums are building a hotel-conference-center-golf-course next door. Song's land messes up a perfect 18th hole, and the greedy Centurion Group has offered him $10 million to sell.
"The issue was, if Lyndon sold his land, the eighteenth hole of the golf course would be a long par-five that would hug the ocean and gently rise to the stunning vista of the six-story hotel on the bluff -- a spectacular finishing hole that could rival the one at Pebble Beach, that one day might befit the hosting of a regular PGA tournament, or maybe even a U.S. Open."
Song's on-again off-again lover Sheila, the mayor of Rosarita Bay, also wants him to sell for mostly commercial reasons. She goes so far as to put nails in his tires.
Lee (a Macalester professor and author of "Country of Origin" and "Yellow") chooses a Labor Day weekend as the time frame and mixes in other, equally immature characters. There's Lyndon's estranged brother, Woody, a producer of kung fu movie remakes, who arrives with the over-the-hill, mercurial and often-drunk actress Yi Ling Ling. He's cast her for another wretched movie that he hopes will be directed by hot indie director Dalton Lee. But he's eternally the lesser brother, the loser.
Something has to give, not only in the prime coastal land battle but also in the Lyndon-Sheila relationship fracas and the Lyndon-Woody sibling rivalry. This is Lee's story arc, and the endings to all the conflicts are rather sweet.
As the land battle heats up, there are well-crafted action scenes involving paint-gun attacks, windsurfing chases, buzzing helicopters and dastardly salvos. Unfortunately, the action is interrupted at times by longish diatribes -- on art, environmental degradation and western snowy plovers -- that are only partially believable.
When the director Lee decides against making Woody's kung fu flick, or any of the usual "Asian gang stories, Asian immigrant stories, Asian racism and war and internment and adoption stories" he rants against the "white hegemony ... They like us over in this corner, you see. They like it when we segregate ourselves. They want us to endlessly mull over our cultural heritage and wrestle with discrimination and assimilation. They want us to keep thinking of ourselves as victims, just whine, whine, whine."
Readers, even as they agree with the merits of these sentiments, might justifiably wonder, where did that come from? Is this the author's cri de cur?
Such interruptions can sometimes get in the way of an otherwise good yarn.
Stephen J. Lyons, of Monticello, Ill., is the author of "Landscape of the Heart."