The word “engaging” acquires new resonance in Paul Skenazy’s Temper CA, a book of quiet, relentless seduction. No explosions rattle these pages, no international intrigue—it is a small book of careful, sudden perfection.
The uneasy varieties of family identity form the book’s heart of darkness. Free of identity issues in the overworked sense, the supple novel exposes long-suppressed secrets that haunt protagonist Joy Temper. Heading back to her childhood home of Temper, California, upon the death of her grandfather, Joy finds the strands of her family’s official biography unraveling. Turns out that Joy’s childhood days in the heart of her parents’ hippie enclave weren’t exactly as she’d recalled. Nor were the loyalties among the generations of Tempers close to what she’d told herself well into adulthood.
Temper is full of ghosts, ghosts of gold miners and those whose land they begged, borrowed, and ultimately stole. The lawless days of 1840s California mining come back to haunt everyone in the book, from Joy, her longtime partner Angie and her various lovers, to her long-lost uncle and disappearing father. Joy Temper approaches us with a fresh voice and plenty of baggage. Readers will find themselves captured by literature that acts like a badass page-turner.
How Skenazy packs all this into a taut text of less than 300 pages is perhaps the biggest mystery of all. Fans of the former UCSC lit professor’s essays and reviews in major publications have come to expect skillful construction and crisp prose. But I’m betting that this searing tale of a woman’s meander toward her own narrative will provide some shocks. And much envy.
“The book started as what I thought of as a long short story,” Skenazy told me. “It began with two images: the photograph of a woman/wife/mother—I didn’t quite know which—pissed as hell, her legs flung over the worn arms of a large chair, a cigarette dangling from one hand. And of a girl who could hold scorpions without getting stung. I was curious what the two had to do with each other. I started to write about the photo through the girl’s voice and things took off.” Skenazy admitted that he worked on Temper CA on and off for a decade until it found its current form, an example of storytelling without an inch of slack. But with an infusion of hot sex and a topnote of magic realism.
“Some of the problems and issues in the book come from what Joy’s parents foisted on her, but we all get a past foisted on us by our families,” he added. “Some of the problems come from the times themselves, the 1960s and 1970s and those ideals and the 2000s with its seeming liberations and practicalities. No one is exempt in this life as far as I can tell.”
Skenazy revealed that the town of Temper was built on the bones of several Gold Rush town he’d visited over the years. “I think you could say I want to set an historical record straight—and I do—and talk about the hippie world and the way it crashed down on so many—and I do. Those were not ‘issues’ to me but elements of time and place that emerged from the story I was telling.”
So deeply burrowed is the author into the main character and the uncanny sense of place that it’s hard to believe how distinct it all is from Skenazy’s own biography. “I know or knew a lot of people like Joy’s parents. And California is my home and I’ve taught and thought about it as a place for years. But the book didn’t just grow on me, it helped me grow as it changed. I hope I’ve hidden myself well inside the voices and stories.”
That’s why it’s called fiction.
Skenazy, a deft interpreter of hard-boiled detective fiction and noir, has long since won the respect of his peers, one of whom—Jonathan Franzen—will be on hand to introduce and engage the author in conversation after the reading next week.
Paul Skenazy will read from his new novel, Temper CA, winner of the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize, on Jan. 10, 7 p.m. Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 423-0900, bookshopsantacruz.com/PaulSkenazy.