Before moving to California from Canada, I thought of the state in binaries. NorCal was wine, technology, Berkeley, redwoods, and the irresistible melancholic appeal of Haight-Ashbury. SoCal was Hollywood, surfer beaches, theme parks, fitness, and kidney-shaped pools–all about mainstream glamor, and hey, I was ejected from that game long ago. I was also peripherally aware (having read Steinbeck in high school) there was farmland toward the east. And wasn’t there a desert, too, near the border with Nevada?
When I did move to the San Francisco Bay Area, into the hive of H1-Bees, I was, as expected, in the land of the dosa delivery, unfathomable home prices, and kindergarten coders. Then I learned more about California and realized the NorCal/SoCal binary was false, as most binaries are. Sure, you can divide California into a geographic north and south, but half an hour east of my city I’m in the Central Valley, home to an agriculture-based economy which produces over half the fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the United States. The region is sole supplier of all the almonds, olives, and pomegranates in the country. Toward the southern part of the Valley on the San Francisco-L.A. route lies Kern County, where not very long ago, KKK activity levels were comparable to those in the Deep South. Today, the population in Central Valley is mostly white and Hispanic, but there’s a small Hmong community as well. There’s also a sizable number of Punjabi Sikhs, some of whom arrived as early as the 1860s; the largest wave arrived in the 1970s. This area and subculture has received little to no coverage in mainstream media, art, and literature—not when there’s so much #disruption elsewhere.
Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s Deep Singh Blue (Unnamed Press, 2016) is set in the Central Valley of the 1980s. The protagonist Deep Singh is born in a “no-name Central Valley town” to Sikh parents who’d immigrated from an Indian village. “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written–the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. …Dad came to look for work, Mom came to marry him. They had no handholds to keep them secure, and the world they encountered was as mystifying as it was terrifying.” Deep’s parents, unable to settle, move from town to town, “each one held fast in its own [Central] Valley noose.” They finally end up literally and metaphorically at the very edge of the Central Valley, overlooking the Bay Area but unable to cross over, in a town with a missile base, a strong KKK presence, and a used bookstore full of romances and Bibles.
Sixteen-year-old Deep, refusing to be dwarfed by his universe, tries to understand his place and his community but is doomed to eternal displacement thanks to his family’s frequent moves. Full of rage, teenage hormones, and sheer dumb bravado, he drops out of high school to attend community college, where he meets 27-year-old Lily, a half-Chinese woman with an “all-American,” “biceps and blue sky and engine oil” husband. Lily gives him his first cigarette and first taste of gin, and soon they’re in a knotty, destructive relationship. Meanwhile, Deep’s older brother Jag is withdrawn and sullen, walking on the edge of violence, with a messy inner life that causes him to shut off from the world. The parents live in desperate denial of their isolation, mindlessly watching television and refusing to acknowledge their older son’s mental issues or Deep’s frustration.
Deep, for the most part, engages with the world in a blackly comedic way, walking into the girl’s locker rooms on a dare “to see what would happen,” running away from home (but in the wrong direction, d’oh!). He is compassionate one moment and massively cruel the next. The lack in Deep’s environment is reflected in his behavior—he is complicit in Lily’s deranged, desperate acts of racism and oblivious to the consequences of his stupider actions. You want to clout him on the head, yes, but you also want to rescue this boy from his brutal surroundings and whisk him to a city abloom with museums and libraries, where he can talk to random strangers about Baruch Spinoza and Albert Camus (The Stranger is one of the central motifs of this novel). The only paths open to Deep seem to be futile resistance or passive acceptance, until life lessons, delivered through experience and through tragedy, bring Deep to a recognition of what he truly needs—and values—in his world.
Sidhu pulls no punches when discussing the themes of alienation, voluntary exile, and the search for meaning in an absurd world rendered even more surreal through cultural difference. Deep is constantly othered, and his statelessness stands in sharp contrast to the (white) locals’ deep affiliation with the nation-state and to his uncle’s vision of the Sikh people carving a separate country (Khalistan) for themselves out of India. Sidhu’s prose illuminates Deep’s inner life as well as his California surroundings; altogether, the novel is deeply and rightfully unsettling in its exploration of topics such as masculinity, dislocation, and white nationalism.
Lest all this sounds too earnest, let me tell you again that this book is very, very funny. Here’s Deep’s dad, telling a prospective daughter-in-law, who looks like “the unhappiest girl who ever lived,” that his son works in oil; Jag was formerly employed in a warehouse in a refinery. Here’s Deep getting ready for his future–by practicing to be a drunk “like Dylan Thomas.” Here’s Deep’s uncle, persuading Deep to fly to India and join the secessionists in Punjab: “I’ll buy your ticket. No worries. Lots of fun for a young man. You’ll be a freedom fighter, like George Washington? They’ll give you fresh rotis every day, like home.” Oh, yes. The next time someone asks me to recommend a California novel, I’ll point to Deep singing the blues.