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April 12-18, 2006

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James D. Houston

Towering Figure: SJSU grad James D. Houston takes a break at his alma mater.

Drifting In Place

San Jose State grad and novelist James D. Houston returns to his valley roots

By Michael S. Gant


IN Californians, his 1982 book about the state of the Golden State, novelist James D. Houston revisits San Jose, where he spent his formative years, graduating from Lincoln High School in the early 1950s and attending San Jose State. Driving around "a town I thought I knew quite well," Houston writes that he "got lost in a district that had once been orchard land" before "the land was scraped" for a housing tract that was "torn out" for an expressway that was replaced by a freeway.

"I was driving from memory," Houston writes, "on the automatic pilot you ought to be able to use at least once in a while, after spending most of your life in the same part of the world. I learned once again that automatic pilot is a high risk in California, where everything changes as it moves."

That sense of change through movement defines California, the last landfall on the continent for wanderers. "The gambler's state," Houston calls it. A state that beckons the hopeful with dreams and sometimes dashes those hopes with earthquakes and fires. In his fiction and reporting, Houston has excavated the rift zone. Along California's fault lines, Houston found a rich metaphor that encompasses emotional upheavals as well as geological displacements.

The stress of living on the San Andreas Fault and how it affects one Monterey Bay farm family is the subject of his 1978 novel, Continental Drift. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, Houston wrote a short story called "Faith," in which a traumatic tremor works in reverse, bringing a drifting couple back together after years of migrating apart: "Everything had been rattled loose again and somehow shaken into place."

This spring, Jim Houston—it doesn't sound right to call him James after all the years I've known him—is back in the place he once knew on automatic pilot. He is the Lurie Distinguished Chair in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, teaching writing and postwar California literature. Houston, the first alumnus of the school to be so honored, graduated 50 years ago from San Jose State, when it was a college and not yet a university.

During a break in his semester's duties, I visited Houston in his old, rambling carpenter Gothic house in Santa Cruz. This is the house where Houston has written most of his seven novels, from Love Life and Native Son of the Golden West to The Last Paradise and Snow Mountain Passage. In this distinctive local landmark with a cupola that stands watch over Twin Lakes Beach and the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, Jim and his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, wrote Farewell to Manzanar, the true story of Jeanne's family and the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II, a touchstone of modern California literature.

Houston was born in San Francisco but recalls, "My dad grew up in a real small town in Texas, and he never did like the city. He wanted to get back to some open county. In those days, the Santa Clara Valley was still rural."

His father purchased seven acres in Saratoga, near Pierce Road. "We moved down from San Francisco into this house with a kind of old Grecian-Roman pillared driveway that came down off the road that reminded by mother enough of a Southern mansion to make her feel that ... she was going to be a Southern belle."

From his mother, Houston learned the power of words. "She came out of west Texas with the desire to become a cultivated person. She gave me books when I was 10 or 11 years old—Poe and Hawthorne and Twain." Early on, he says, "the notion got planted that I can make something like this. I was transfixed by that."

Houston remembers that he picked up his supple narrative skills from the most traditional of sources: "My mother and my grandmother, who was from Tennessee, always read to us from the Bible at night. Apart from whatever religious significance [the stories] had—Lazarus being raised from the dead, Jacob and Esau, all this kind of stuff—we were getting exposed to storytelling, and that I think had a big influence on me."

In the kind of Protestant fundamentalism that nurtured Houston from an early age, "They stripped away all the extraneous trappings. The only way we had to express our devotion was language; the only connection with the higher power was language. I left the family religion behind by the time I was 17, but it was words—the power of words—that really stuck."

From the orchards of San Jose, Houston traveled to Abilene Christian College on a football scholarship. Wiry and topping out at 6-feet-2, Houston was what people used to call "a tall drink of water," and strong enough to play fullback in California, but not in west Texas, where football is its own form of fundamentalism.

Houston earned a backhanded nickname from an older, huskier player: "There's only two kinds of people from California," his nemesis growled. "Prunepickers, and movie stars. And movie stars always wear dark glasses." That misbegotten gridiron year is memorably recounted in "Prunepicker," from a collection of essays called The Men in My Life.

Houston enrolled at San Jose State in 1952. His major was journalism, with a minor in Spanish. By the kind of lucky coincidence that can shape an entire life, only one other student shared that course of studies: Jeanne Wakatsuki. "We were the only two students on the whole campus with that mix," Houston recalls. "I had five classes, and in every class here was this extraordinary-looking Asian woman. There was no escape."

In those days, Houston says, "We were the only interracial couple on the whole campus in those days. ... Later on, looking back on it, we realized that no one else was doing it at the time. It didn't cause any problems. It didn't seem to be an issue for anybody. It wasn't like we were trying to conduct a great sociological experiment to see if we could get away with it—we were just drawn to each other."

Being back after 50 years exerts a kind of temporal temblor for Houston. So much has shifted in half a century, but sometimes the past has a way of surviving in the midst of flux. From his office at the school, he says, "the view hasn't changed. The grass hasn't changed. It's the same palm trees—or at least they seem to be."

Although San Jose State was then, as now, primarily a commuter college, Houston rented rooms close to campus. One of those rooming houses "is still there on San Fernando Street. I was always trying to find the cheapest room. I paid $12.50 a month to share a room."

San Jose was "still very much a farm town" in the 1950s. "I don't remember any night spots or music clubs. If we wanted to go out and have a beer, we'd have to go out to a local bar." There was, however, a club on Market Street called the Trocadero where jazz bands performed. Houston himself is an accomplished bass player, and his second novel, Gig, focuses on a single night in a piano bar.

After a stint in the Air Force, Houston took an overseas discharge and did the obligatory bohemian-writer stint in Paris. "I didn't know what I was doing," he confesses about that time. "Luckily, I had the sense to know I didn't know what I was doing." Back home, Houston earned an M.A. in American literature at Stanford, where he began to truly know what he was doing.

Angular in Repose

Jim Houston speaks slowly, deliberately. His measured cadence bedevils my voice-activated tape recorder, which keeps stopping with each pause. Some of this comes with years; Houston has seen, and recorded, a lot of change. He also knows how to balance that change by listening to the history of places.

The house that he inhabits has a long history. In these rooms lived Patty Reed, whose father, James Frazier Reed, helped organize the Donner Party. Patty Reed shows up in Snow Mountain Passage as the 80-year-old narrator who recounts the travail of that doomed immigrant expedition.

For Bird of Another Heaven, his new novel, to be released by Knopf early next year, Houston is again listening to history. The story is based on the life of a half-Hawaiian, half-California Indian woman who lived in the upper Sacramento Valley in the late 1800s, one of products of marriages between Native Americans and Hawaiian workers imported by John Sutter to built his famous fort.

The woman backtracks to the islands where she has an affair with the last king of Hawaii. In this way, the novel brings together two powerful geographical poles for Houston, who has spent a great deal of time in Hawaii, studying its music and its culture, co-authoring Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport and making a documentary about slack key guitar music.

The movement that changes things in Hawaii is volcanic, but these days, so close to the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that cracked and bent all of Northern California, Houston's mind is back on the faults that undergird all of our lives.

"The role of the earthquake in California is profound," he says. "It releases terror, it releases a kind of wonder. "The price of living here is the constant threat of a major quake, but we're going to go ahead and do it anyway. It's like the bullfighter. The game with the bullfighter is to get in as close to the horns as you can without being gored."


James D. Houston appears at a Q&A on April 13 at noon in the second floor meeting rooms 225-229 of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. He gives a talk the same day at 7:30pm in the same location. Both events are co-sponsored by the library and the Center for Literary Arts. Admission is free.


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