California Fault

California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas (Ballantine, 1997)

“Delightfully eclectic . . . Move over, Alexis de Tocqueville. When Thurston Clarke makes the UFO-earthquake connection halfway through Fault, he elevates himself to the first rank of America’s social observers.”
—Los Angeles Times

California has always symbolized the good life, but social problems and natural disasters have tarnished the image of the Golden State. To find out what happened to the California Dream, Clarke sets off on a remarkable journey down the San Andreas fault searching for earthquakes and good news.

More Reviews of California Fault

“Vivid and continually surprising… The author has an unerring ability to search out exactly the right despoiler, utopian, or local eccentric to illuminate the history and character of each stop along the way.”
The New Yorker

“His enthusiasm is infectious… he entertains and illuminates, writing gracefully, and with a fine sense of irony…The book is so deftly written, so relentlessly good-humored, that I gobbled it up…He’s funny and he’s fair and he swims well against powerful cultural cross-currents.”
New York Times Book Review

“He has a nice touch and a close eye. Like novelist John Updike, he has the ability to raise the stature of the mundane and to make an interesting prose purse out of a sow’s-ear situation.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“Clarke’s acerbic wit and vivid description are a pleasure throughout…As tough in its critique of the Golden State as it is shrewd in its understanding, California Fault is a book to savor.”
Seattle Times

“Witty, engaging… It gave me much pleasure.”
Washington Post Book World

“A wonderful book from one of our best travel writers.”
Portland Oregonian

“A nearly edible travelogue — smooth as mousse, full of savory tidbits, and memorable.”

“Provocative and absorbing… Clarke’s clean, punchy prose and his novelist’s eye for detail make California Fault a breezy, trenchant read.”
Santa Cruz Sentinel

“I lived in the Golden State in the Seventies, just before the tarnish, the fool’s gold, and Proposition 13. Now comes Mr. Clarke, an adventurous investigator. In his persistent wandering he uncovers a cornucopia of America’s disappointed dreams. We hear the voices of wanderers, settlers, ex-communards, and working philosophers. The closeness of dream and dread is still thrilling and comes through. I wiped my eyes.”
Andrei Codrescu

“This is a brilliant, mordantly funny book, and Clarke’s vision of the San Andreas Fault is powerful and true. He’s a dark millenarian who’s given us a beautifully complex metaphor, and if California at century’s end is America’s future, then we’re all living on the Fault, and the Big One’s due any minute.”
Russell Banks

Purchase California Fault


Along the north coast, gas stations had been good places for meeting people, but here they were designed to protect employees from customers and you paid a cashier in an upright Plexiglass coffin before you pumped, a double reminder of how little you were trusted. It was no good trying to talk to people at the K-Marts or Long’s Drugs either. They were not places to linger, and the clerks were busy and bored. Most towns no longer had thriving downtowns because, despite the advertising nostalgia for Norman Rockwell Main Street America, Californians were like most Americans: cold-blooded community killers. Ready to administer the coup de grace to merchants who had sponsored decades of Little League teams and high-school yearbooks in order to shave some pennies off a tube of Colgate.

Throughout his presidency, Kennedy challenged demands from his advisers and the Pentagon to escalate America’s involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy began a reappraisal in the last hundred days that would have led to the withdrawal of all sixteen thousand U.S. military
advisers by 1965.

[Berkland] had become a clearinghouse for seismically sensitive pet stories…The week before the 1980 Eureka earthquake they fielded 853 complaints of dogs wandering on highways and cows on the wrong side of a field. A Dr. Deshpande in India, who had documented abnormal animal behavior before subcontinent earthquakes, sent him a paper by Soviet scientists mentioning how an hour before the 1988 Armenian earthquake, ‘a very tame pet hamster bit his owner for the first and only time.’ A veterinarian reported crystals forming in the urinary tracts of cats just before an earthquake…A pigeon fancier in Danville called to report a ‘smash race’ from Nevada… It seemed obvious the magnetic energy preceding an earthquake was disturbing the pigeons’ sense of direction.

South of Gilroy I smelled garlic, not the bitter stink of a cheap ethnic restaurant, but a gentle garlic perfume. I opened the windows and filled my lungs….Don Christopher’s sheds were…several stories high and reeking of garlic. Cloves overflowed wooden crates, boiled away in kettles, and rolled down conveyor belts to women in masks for sorting and cleaning. Even their names made me smile. There was Flor, Giant, Jumbo, Extra Jumbo, Super Jumbo, Colossal, and Super Colossal. I chewed on a Colossal and felt as if my sinuses, closed for weeks by pollen and pollutants, had been irrigated by high-pressure hoses. I was suddenly lightheaded, drunk on garlic.

The next morning [Taft] was a bleak, blue-collar town of deep porches, rusty air conditions, and small windows, a place built for scorching summers. Pumps pulled oil from one of the richest fields in North America and the air smelled of asphalt. It was so unlike anywhere else in California that I declared a vacation, staying another night in my twenty-five-dollar motel, lunching on perhaps the cheapest and best nonfranchised burritos in California, and reading that in 1926 a “mouse army” of thirty million had swarmed into town, terrorizing the oil-field roustabouts and devouring sheep. State officials had dispatched an exterminator named Piper.

Author – Historian – Speaker

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