A New Novel By Adam Gnade Is A Love Letter To San Diego — And A Rocky Past
In "This Is The End Of Something But It's Not The End Of You," former San Diegan Adam Gnade explores loss, vice, love and home.
In a new novel by former local Adam Gnade, San Diego takes on a starring role. But "This Is The End of Something But It's Not The End Of You" is not precious about it; this city, often caricatured, mocked or just scratched on the surface in its portrayals in media and art, is treated with a sort of in-depth obviousness.
Like the boroughs of New York, neighborhood names are thrown out with a confidence, and more specific name-drops like taco shops, businesses, schools, sections of boardwalks and highways all contribute to a sense that San Diego is big and important, and if you don't know its ins and outs, that's your fault.
It's a presumptuous approach to writing a book where place is so significant — not just in the atmosphere, but also in how the tribulations of main character James Bozic unfold. James struggles through a beach-town childhood but it's the grimy, unrelenting underbelly and poor choices of beach-town life that drive both the plot and some delightfully familiar (and visceral) prose.
"That day at the foot of Zanzibar Court, the day I found out about Sonny's death, the ocean as seen from the boardwalk was dark, flat, wind-chopped into tufts of white spray-back. It was a warm, breezy day — overcast — the sand, sea, and sky the same dark hot gray. It was, in a fashion, a dramatic gray — alive, vibrant, tumultuous. It felt like change, like a new city on the desert horizon as you ride toward it."
James reads like an easy autofiction stand-in for Gnade, author of four other books, a recording artist and former editor of the beloved '00s-era alt-weekly "Fahrenheit San Diego."
We watch James grow from a sullen, lost, awkward nerd kid at Pacific Beach Elementary into a somewhat more poised but still adrift adult, following the same trajectories as Gnade.
But Gnade welcomes — and resists — the speculation.
"To me this book and the rest of mine are novels in which everything is both made-up and true and there are no clear lines of distinction or designation drawn or boundaries imposed upon the plot and narrative," Gnade told me. "Sometimes it's better to let a question remain unanswered. There's a certain wonderfulness in having more questions than you've got answers."
The timeline of this book is sweeping and memoir-like, spanning from an opening scene with his first grade teacher reading "The Hobbit," through a year-by-year romp of his education, then into the mistakes, moves and dreams of burgeoning adulthood.
By the end, we've accompanied James through his obsession with a family mystery and a set of ominous but poetic postcards; we've been through an unrequited love so powerful he settles into a presumed lovelessness; we've been through places that aren't San Diego: Portland, Baja, the desert, rural Kansas; and then, beautifully, we're somehow, sort of, back where we started but new and transformed.
The story is strongly rooted in home, but just as powerful is the way these characters are untethered.
After a novel's worth of chasing dreams around the country, this city stands triumphant and uncontested, even if someone can't or won't return (or just hasn't yet). We're fed this triumph in small ways, but also in big, proud ways: A slice of a memory of the way Miss Shoac read about Thorin Oakenshield's death in "The Hobbit," a long, indulgent discussion of the superiority of San Diego's burritos mere pages from the end, and through it all, there's a type of aimlessness mixed with very specific, wistful aims.
"Throughout it all, even on the best days, I thought of home," Gnade writes.
San Diego has agency beyond just being a place to visit or escape from, but in "This Is The End Of Something," this is both challenged and accepted. It's okay to have a love-hate relationship with San Diego, but the city is also bigger than that and its impact on James outlasts his attempts to outrun it.
The book's actual, literal production is also a celebration of San Diego.
Published in a collaboration from San Diego-based Three One G Records (run by Justin Pearson) and Pioneers Press, the book's acknowledgement page rattles off a list of local literary and music figures as early readers and Gnade's support system.
Unsurprisingly, music and local journalism have strong ties in the novel, bolstering the characters as they navigate getting older, grieving, finding careers and/or meaning. As his story comes to a close, James muses, "I thought of how sometimes in the midst of survival, life will jerk you away from your home, how it will push you out across the map, away from the people you love, or into the path of others. … Everything will change aways."
Gnade's relationship with San Diego is as complicated as his characters'. "I believe the San Diego I'm writing about is true, but it's a representation. It's art. Artifice. So by the very nature of me telling it, it loses some of its objectivity, some of its reality, and ventures into fantastical waters," he said.
Simultaneously bird's-eye and in-the-weeds, Gnade's San Diego is glamorized from a distance and filthy with reality.
Adam Gnade reads at Verbatim Books on Saturday, Feb 22 at 7 p.m. More details here.