Dana Johnson’s 2012 novel is a beautifully rendered coming-of-age saga spanning decades.
When diving into Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California, we are immersed into the technical terrain of interpersonal relationships, mainly ones familial. With her expertise and scope, Johnson constructs a familial portrait of nuanced coming-of-age, with her protagonist Avery painted front and center. But when cousin Keith enters the picture, intermittently living with the family, the two relatives’ dynamics swell and wane throughout years of tumultuous ambivalence, and fraught affability. As the two grow older, Avery examines the demise and alienation of Keith, the very same cousin she used to look up to, now a picture of wasted promise. In Elsewhere, California, Johnson analyzes the challenges of having to come to terms with a loved one who’s behavior begins to take its toll on those around them, when doing so is nothing but easy.
Elsewhere, California largely revolves around three distinct characters: Avery as our protagonist, her cousin Keith, and finally rounding out their little trio is Avery’s best friend Brenna, for whom she meets in grade school.
Brenna, a result of restless ennui, is one firecracker of a character. Spunky, assertive, reckless, and wild, she’s hard not to miss. Though she is excessively stimulated into complacency, so much so her behavior rarely has room for growth and expectantly bleeds into her adulthood. A matter, Avery does not seem to mind at first, until Brenna’s big personality finds her in opposition to Avery’s Italian partner, Massimo.
Avery is a huge fan of the Dodger’s, an admirer of her cousin Keith, and overtly and admirably carries a tenacity and a hope for those she loves.
Keith is the boisterous relative, who adds excitement into Avery’s life. He takes up so much space in her world, she is closer to him than her brother.
More can be said about Keith, as he is more realized in Avery’s past than present, in contrast to her own life, which is understandable considering Avery grew up with Keith, and while as an adult, rarely sees him, if at all. She is caught in a limbo within their relationship. Avery harbors a hope for his potentiality, and is disturbed when it does not come to fruition. A potentiality squandered by the powers that be: Keith, himself; and more so, our punitive socio-economic sphere, especially one unyielding to Black people.
Avery, can easily be eclipsed by Keith and Brenna though her observations anchor her into relevancy or at least beckon her away from the peripheral. She’s not a passive spectator of her peers, but one who attempts to squeeze in within their bold, large characterization. And though try as she may, and at times succeeding, we truly witness Avery shine especially when we leap forward into her adult years. Avery’s flâneur-like sensibilities feed into her precise and meaningful observations, in turn, grounding her with a reticent assuredness that rivals that of her cousin and best friend. She, too, is memorable, if not in the obvious, boisterous way of her peers. Her own capability is, at first, unnoticeable, even hazy though it quickly becomes nascent with time. And as the novel progresses and ultimately comes to a close, following Avery from her childhood years to that as an adult, her life becomes that much more encompassing, full and layered, with Avery being no longer delegated to the bylines of her own story.
Additionally, conflicts almost too conveniently find resolution. One situation in particular, involving an unforeseen product of Keith and Brenna’s relationship is given enough precedence as to have the two families be involved within a heated sit-down conversation due to the gravity of the situation, and even as well as have Keith and Brenna’s personal new developments be the gossip of their school for some time, only to within future chapters have Keith and Brenna’s former transgression breezily spoken of en passant and nothing else thereafter. It feels rushed, and one must take into account if Keith and Brenna’s infraction was only placed within the story as a contrived plot device rather than as an opportunity to burrow deeper into the complex dynamics of the cousin and best friend pair.
Furthermore, Massimo and Avery’s richly rendered relationship, is honest, and at times weary then passionate and sweet — the two share such a quiet and compelling love for one another. “Please, I thought. Let me be the thing that he wants to see,” Avery pleads to herself, when the two first become intimate. With time, their relationship matures, and Avery has since cast her insecurity aside, now to confidently declare, “I see you, we say to each other with our eyes. I see you.” Placed within the fuller context of the text, the scene is so remarkably poignant as to cause an ache within the chest, bringing forth such a delicate intricacy to their relationship that it’s hard to believe they’re merely fictional. Witnessing a Black woman being pined for, cherished and loved with such a fullness and generosity rarely afforded to Black women, infuses Johnson’s tale with a refreshing take seldom depicted within the media.
Again, her life with Massimo is in great opposition to that of her childhood. As an adult and through Avery’s relationship with him, she discovers some semblance of stability, until Keith unexpectedly pops up again. But it is in Dae-Jung, Avery’s nephew, who she contains a hope for that has since long expired in Keith, one Avery holds fast to and proclaims, “You’re a surfer for God’s sake,” after a racially motivated altercation ensues at her gallery showing. Though Massimo and Dae-Jung look at her in bewilderment, considering her statement during such an contentious situation, her plea is more than the sum of its parts; Avery is only emphasizing the magnitude of her Dae-Jung’s ability and promise, “I’m simply reminding my nephew of all the beautiful vastness, wherever it may take him, that lies ahead.”
Elsewhere, California finds its strength through Johnson’s writing style. Punctuated by colorful, cultural details specific to time and place. Johnson is masterful when balancing the AAVE, 70s era jargon, and the child-like musings of her young narrator:
“Donny Osmond. Hes totally decent. She show me his picture and I like Donny Osmond all right. I watch him all the time on the Donny and Marie show. It say above his picture Can You Turn On His Love-Power? Whats love power, I ask Brenna. She hand me the Slurpee. You know, she say, smiling big. Can you make him do it til youre satisfied? She turn the page. Robbie Benson! She scream. What a fox. She pass me the magazine and point to him. He got dark wavy hair and blue eyes and I like the way he look. Foxy, I say, trying Brennas word. He foxy. When we come to the corner to my house, I stop. Well, Brenna. See you tomorrow. Im finna go home now. Brenna frown. Whats finna, she ask me, and I dont understand. What you mean, whats finna?
What does that word mean, spaz. Brenna scratch her elbow, waiting on me.
Whats spaz, Im thinking. Then I say, It mean Im gone go home.
Brenna say, Then why dont you just say that? That youre going to go home.
But Im thinking, That aint what I said, that I was go-eng to go home. I said gone.”
Johnson’s predisposition to quirk, sweetens the more so heavy, darker aspects of her protagonist’s coming-of-age. When describing distant snow capped mountains, Avery muses, “Look how pretty that looks, like milk spilling down rocks and the sun could be honey.” One scene utilizes discrepancies to serve as fodder for a varied description of the sky, saturating her words with a charismatic idiosyncrasy in illustrating a full breadth of a Californian horizon only a true Californian could muster the courage to put pen to paper. And with Johnson’s words, the feeling is very much there and perceived:
“Miles and miles of sand and dirt and weeds and mountains the color of three different kinds of mustard. Dark yellow, almost brown, bright yellow like French’s mustard, and a yellow with lavender going straight through it. The rocks on the hills look like Mars and the windmills look like giant white men with the arms waving at me like crazy. Over here. Over here…The sky is blue, like swimming pool water, and the air is hot in our faces and smells good like a shirt that just came out of the dryer, warm and soft against my cheek. And the light. How to explain the light on the mountains? We are still in California, but the light doesn’t seem real, it feels like a different planet, Mars on a movie set, spotlights on the rocks, ten times stronger than the sun. Like somebody is yelling Action, flashing gold all around. How would I make this color if I tried? This is Palm Springs, California.”
Elsewhere, California, revisits the usual themes media attempts to take a stab at — racism, the impact socio-economic factors have on individuals and the collective, love, friendships—but imbues it with such nuance when doing so, it’s hard not to root for Johnson’s charming Avery and the world she so fully inhabits.