When my friends ask librarians to recommend a novel by a local author that’s set in Sonoma County they suggest Greg Sarris’s Watermelon Nights and Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon. They rarely if ever point readers in the direction of The Girls by Emma Cline. Some of the settings are vague, but Cline mentions Petaluma, East Washington Street, Adobe Road and a few other local landmarks. Cline belongs to Sonoma as much as Greg Sarris and Jack London. She grew up in Sonoma, though she apparently lives in New York now and keeps a very low profile.
The Girls was published three years ago in 2016 and became a runaway bestseller. Rumor has it Cline received $2 million from her publisher, Random House. If you haven’t read The Girls, now would be a good time to do so. Much of the book is set in 1969, the year when the 1960s ended if you count chronologically.
Some cultural historians do. Others don’t. John McMillan, who has written about the underground press in Smoking Typewriters, has argued that The Sixties, as an era of protest and as a state of mind, began in 1955 when the Civil Rights movement flexed its muscle, and ended twenty years later, in 1975 when the U.S. finally pulled out of Vietnam. McMillan and others refer to the “Long Sixties.”
My own personal Sixties felt like it ended in ‘69. My marriage crashed and burned when my wife joined Weatherman. In the fall, I was arrested and beaten by a dozen or so New York City cops after a demonstration in midtown Manhattan, where I, and hundreds of others, protested the murders of two Chicago Black Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who had been in bed and asleep.
Earlier that year, Berkeley police shot and killed James Rector in the battle for People’s Park, which Ronald Reagan used to lambast hippies and catapult himself into the Governor’s office in Sacramento. A young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne drowned at a place called Chappaquiddick, and, thousands of miles away, a patriot, a nationalist and a communist named Ho Chi Minh died at the age of 79 in Hanoi. Astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, CBS canceled the Smothers Brothers Show and oil spilled all over the Santa Barbara Channel.
There’s nothing about Black Panthers, Weatherman, Civil Rights or Vietnam in The Girls. There is some sex and some violence, though not a lot. There is a great deal of weirdness, which came to define the end of that era. Indeed, it was alive and well at the Altamont rock concert, which took place December 6, 1969 and that was described at the time as the flip side of Woodstock, which had taken place in August.
The Rolling Stones performed at Altamont; the audience numbered 300,000 and an African American man was stabbed to death while people stood by, watched and did nothing. The Stones album, Let It Bleed, which was released in December, seemed to sum up that moment in history.
1969 was the year when Charles Manson’s weird crew invaded the LA home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Manson didn’t participate in the bloodbath that took place on August 8 and 9. He merely directed it. Polanski wasn’t at home, but his wife, Sharon Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant, was. She was stabbed 16 times and died
instantly agonizingly, begging for her life and the life of her unborn child. With Tate’s blood, one of the cult members wrote the word “Pig” on the front door. It was a bad time for the Sixties, the counterculture and hippies.
I knew people who were part of the radical fringe who thought that the murder of Sharon Tate was way cool. I thought the fringe people had gone over the edge and into nihilism and tried to ridicule them. It was as crazy as any other time in the Sixties.
For The Girls, Emma Cline borrowed from the Manson cult the home invasion and murder of Tate. But she set her tale in Sonoma County, which gives it an eerie feeling especially if you live here. The main character and narrator, a young woman named Evie Boyd, grows up bored in an upper middle class white family, which Cline depicts as rather cult-like. Indeed, her novel is almost as much an outcry against prosperous, but deadening suburban life, as it is an outcry against a utopian counterculture that turned degenerate and murderous.
The first part of The Girls is the best part. There are memorable phrases such as “cosmic boredom” and “the after burn of the sixties.” Cline has a keen eye for the rites and rituals of American girlhood and what the narrator calls “the dull stream of adolescent life.” At the back of the book, Cline thanks her own sisters and brothers. No doubt, they were helpful in more ways than one. The author seems to draw on her own experiences of family life and sibling relationships, though they’re also souped-up.
When Evie (a modern day Eve) stumbles into the cult, The Girls loses much of its traction and verbal power. Indeed, the language suddenly goes largely slack, and the fictional cult leader, a man named Russell Hadrick, is rather tame and disappointing as the incarnation of evil. Evie gives him a blowjob that’s anti-climactic from a narrative point of view. It’s the attraction/repulsion between the girls that interests Cline, especially the relationship between Evie and an older woman who is part of the cult’s inner circle.
Evie offers some valuable insights into male behavior. “When men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains,” she says near the end of the narrative. I never met Manson or came close to meeting him. But a few years ago, when visiting Wavy Gravy at the summer camp he ran for kids in Mendocino, I heard what felt like a confession about Manson. In 1969, Wavy and his back-to-the-land friends were living on a commune called The Hog Farm in Tujunga, near LA.
“This yellow school bus pulls up to the farm, and this wiry, hippie looking guy gets out and asks if he can hook up to water and electricity,” Wavy said. “The guy pointed to a bunch of girl inside the bus and said I could have any of them anytime I wanted. I looked inside and shook my head. ‘No thanks,’ I said.” The guy went back into the bus and drove away. Shortly after that, I saw his picture in the paper. It was Charles Manson. I’m so glad I didn’t allow him to hook up to water and electricity.”
I can understand why librarians might not want to recommend The Girls. The story is gruesome. The narrator is nauseated much of the time and her nausea spills off the page.
There’s talk of making The Girls into a movie, though there already have been several films inspired by the Manson cult, including The Haunting of Sharon Tate, which was released in April 2019, and didn’t make a big splash. The second and more promising movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is scheduled for release on July 26, 2019. Quentin Tarantino directed. The cast includes Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Dakota Fanning, among others. The soundtrack includes songs by The Mamas & the Papas and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” which Neil Diamond recorded in 1969.
You could avoid Tarantino’s movie, stay home, play rock ‘n’ roll from 1969, and read Emma Cline’s The Girls. Or maybe watch Woodstock, the 1970 documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh, starring Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, The Who, and a cast of thousands who gathered for peace and love and music.