Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Oddball Camp Stories in Popular Culture - California Generation

In the work I've been doing on the Densho Encyclopedia, I've come across quite a number of oddball camp references in mainstream popular culture of the past. Since I'm constrained a bit in expounding on these in the encyclopedia context, I'll be writing a series of blog posts on some of the most interesting ones.

First up is a 1970 novel by the bestselling novelist Jacqueline Briskin titled California Generation. Author of eleven rather large novels that sold some 30 million copies, Briskin gained a fair amount of fame and wealth in the '70s and '80s with titles such as Too Much Too Soon and Dreams Are Not Enough. Sometimes grouped with two other "Jackies"—Susann and Collins—her books mixed romance, adventure, convoluted plots, and lots of sex in a combination that earned her a large fan base. Having worked in a bookstore in the 1980s, I remember her thick paperbacks with the racy covers being steady sellers.

Though most of her books were historical epics, California Generation, her first novel, was set in the very recent past. It tells the story of a group of students from the fictitious "California High" class of 1960 as they embark on a very 1960s set of adventures over the next decade. It has what you would call an ensemble cast if it were a movie (which it seems to want to be). There's Clay Gillies, the handsome and charismatic outsider who becomes a Freedom Rider and anti-Vietnam War activist, and his girlfriend, Michelle Davy, who becomes pregnant as a high school senior, forcing the couple to marry. Becoming more status conscious and materialistic as Clay becomes more politically engaged, we can see this marriage is doomed rather quickly. There's Dorot McHenry, the skinny budding social scientist who notices everything; York, the crippled but filthy rich, disaffected, and very smart son of a Charlton Heston-like right wing movie star who dabbles in politics, Marshall Mosgrove, the insecure sycophant who becomes unaccountably successful (but who of course has a "terrible secret"); Stryker Halvorson, the beautiful and pure hearted star athlete who dies in Vietnam; Ruth Abby Heim, the repressed Jewish girl who is a talented singer/songwriter; Leigh Sutherland, the nice rich girl who rebels by taking on a poor "colored" boyfriend; a brilliant but brooding and angry artist and filmmaker named Ken Igawa, who was born in an American concentration camp in Utah…. Wait, what? Where did that come from? Who is Ken Igawa, and how did he find his way into this book?

I suppose his presence shouldn't be too surprising given the basic premise of the book. California High is in West Los Angeles and the title of the book comes not just from the fact that the cast comes from that school, but that they are all first generation Californians. Having grown up in Los Angeles and being a first generation Californian myself—as were many if not most of the kids I grew up with—this is something I can readily identify with. California—and Los Angeles in particular—grew dramatically in 1930s through the 1960s with agricultural jobs, warm weather, war industries, dreams of Hollywood, and many other things drawing large numbers of migrants to the state. Briskin too is a first generation Californian, having moved with her family from her native Great Britain at age ten and graduating from Beverly Hills High, albeit fifteen years before the people she writes about here. Having grown up in LA and having lived there ever since, she no doubt knew Japanese Americans and knew of their wartime expulsion and incarceration and wanted her readers to know about it as well.

Another part of the premise is that California High—which seems to be a combination of the real life Palisades and University High Schools—draws from a wide swath of West Los Angeles that includes rich and poor and a variety of ethnic groups. This is true of both Pali and Uni in real life, where sons and daughters of movie stars mixed with the children of their gardeners, as is the case here.

Ken's family is certainly poor, though it is made clear that this is because of the incarceration. A successful strawberry farmer in West LA before the war, Ken's father was forced to sell his land for "five cents on the dollar, which… was worse than theft for it added humiliation," according to Ken. To add further insult, that land became part of "Parkdale," an exclusive subdivision, after the war. We are told that the family went to a "concentration camp" in Utah, where Ken was born. No "quiet American," Ken is angry at the way Japanese Americans have been treated and, like his spiritual cousin Joe Kojaku from the 1959 movie The Crimson Kimono (which will be the subject of another essay in this series), that anger sometimes gets directed at those close to him, in particular his rich white girlfriend Leigh and her family.

The anger is part of an almost anti-stereotypical portrayal of Ken and of Ken and Leigh's relationship. Ken is a brooding artist rather than a budding dentist or pharmacist, he is six feet tall, and, though a somewhat indifferent student, he manages to get an art scholarship to UC Berkeley.  Ken and Leigh's relationship seems to be 90% physical at first, and their eventual marriage is rocky; on the other hand, pretty much all of the relationships in this book are rocky (and physical, it's that kind of book), and it is suggested in the end that they might make it after all.

Leigh's parents—or least her father—come off relatively well, at least relative to his peers who are uniformly unpleasant. Despite being closer in age to the parents, Briskin has played up the flaws in all of them from York's hypocritical movie star father and cold and conniving stepmother, to Ruth Abby's controlling mother, perhaps to make the point that despite their difficulties and growing pains, this 1960s generation represents a new hope for society. Mr. Sutherland is a rich lawyer who opposes Leigh and Ken's marriage because of their youth, but is portrayed as not a "racist"—not explicitly at least—but as a liberal and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. ("Civil Liberties did nothing to stop the deportation [of Japanese Americans]," Ken tells Leigh when she points this out to him.) When Ken's father gets seriously ill, Leigh's father agrees to pay his hospital bills, on the condition that Ken and Leigh not see each other for a year. If they still want to get married after that, he promises to pay for the wedding. They do, and he does.

Ken's Nisei parents (this isn't made explicit, but they certainly don't seem Issei) have just bit parts but come off as badly as the other parents. His father seems defeated by the events of the war and is wholly ineffectual. His mother is dour and ethnocentric, pushing Ken to at least give a Sansei girl a second look.

It's been a long time since I've read a book like this, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Over the course of eight years starting with the graduation, we follow the characters in and out of various subplots, hitting all of the 1960s touchstones. The characters come back together at the book's climax, which takes place at a huge anti-war rally organized by Clay that is held outside an event where President Johnson is speaking and where Dorot and Marshall are invited guests of York's famous father; most of others march in the rally, and an anti-war film made by Ken, funded by York and starring Leigh, rallies the marchers.

It is still odd to see a character like Ken in this setting. If he were to be a minority, one would expect him to be African American instead, but perhaps a Japanese American was seen as less threatening. And since Clay takes on an older African American girlfriend later in the book, perhaps the author saw other interracial frontiers to conquer with Leigh and Ken's story.

While there are other Japanese American characters in mainstream books and movies in this period, all the others seem to be Nisei. So could Ken be the first true Sansei character in a book or movie?

Brian Niiya, Content Director, Densho