Jesse’s Ghost is the first story of a new series by Frank Bergon: a novelist, essayist, critic and professor emeritus at Vassar College. A tale of rough friendship between characters on a California ranch in the mid-20th century, it tracks the lives of two dirt-poor Okie teenagers who labor hard in the fields, and drink hard, play hard and fight hard the rest of their waking hours. Bergon will read from his new book at the Vassar College Bookstore on Tuesday, January 31 at 5 p.m.
Sonny and Jesse are best buddies, growing into premature adulthood in tough circumstances. Under the heat of relentless sunshine, they work the sprawling Madera County ranch by day and prove their manhood by night. Sonny’s idolization of his comrade persists through sadistic scrabbles and shared sexual conquests, until one infidelity pushes him too far. Jesse’s Ghost reaches into one man’s history to disrupt the psychological haunting of the friend he murdered and finally to set him free of it.
With a focus on a region that he knows personally, Bergon expertly captures the cultural geography of place like novelists Joan Didion and John Steinbeck did before him. He depicts a California unknown to those of us who equate the Golden State with the tourism, entertainment and technology industries. That massive section between the Sierras along the east and the Coastal Range hugging the west, bordered at the north and south by the Cascades and Tehachapi mountain ranges, is known as the Central Valley. It is the state’s literal breadbasket, and indeed produces one-third of the nation’s food. Before giant agribusiness corporations consumed the land, individual families farmed property for generations.
Bergon’s tale reveals the sort of men and women who once populated and worked the Central Valley, enduring the sweltering heat of summers, the uncertainties of increasingly industrialized farming methods and the desperate actions of young people yearning for better lives elsewhere. His terms are both nostalgic and full of violence. He has Sonny describing “sweet-scented alfalfa fields and big canals of water with the air full of trilling meadowlarks…when I looked across the sparkling alfalfa at the sun coming up above the Sierras I felt in a new country…A breeze smelled of eucalyptus leaves and Mrs. Etcheverry’s flowers. Even the blazing sun bounced as it popped up fresh from the Nevada desert behind the mountains. The whole ranch shined full of light, something familiar but strange, too, like in a movie.”
In another scene, Sonny talks about being defended by his stepfather, who hit his own smartass nephew “so hard up against the windshield his head cracked it. When he got to his feet, Dewey knocked him through the yard fence, not over it but through the wooden slats. Dewey reached into the car and broke off the stick shift and near beat that guy to death [saying] ‘You don’t call this boy’s momma a bitch.’” The action is both languid and tense by turns, giving the reader a vivid picture of who these characters have come to be.
For more information on Bergon’s upcoming reading at Vassar, call (845) 437-5870.