Reading The Rain

As California enjoys a welcome reprieve from its ongoing drought, David Ulin considers how the state’s legendary downpours have shaped its literary – and psychological – landscape:

“Easterners commonly complain that there is no ‘weather’ in Southern California,” Joan Didion observes in “Los Angeles Notebook,” “that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact, the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire.”

I could do without the Santa Ana, but in such a landscape, the rain — especially when it is torrential — is a revelation, and I have missed it this year. Why? Because in California, rain reminds us (to borrow another phrase from Didion) of “how close to the edge we are.” It is often neither gentle nor reassuring, which the region’s writers have recognized all along.

In one of the climactic scenes in his novel Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain describes the New Year’s flood of 1934: “She slogged on,” he writes of his protagonist, “up the long hill to Glendale, down block after block of rubble, torrents, seas of water. Her galoshes filled repeatedly, and periodically she stopped, holding first one foot high behind her, then the other, to let the water run out.” It’s a vivid image, of nature in ascendance, of the elemental world asserting itself over the human, as every Southern Californian understands will happen in the end.

Recent Dish on California’s endless summer herehere, and here.