Read Big Dreams Online

Authors: Bill Barich

Big Dreams

Acclaim for
Bill Barich’s

Big Dreams
is very fine work, deceptively easygoing, and filled with the sort of thwarted longing that seems, more and more, to define our times.”

—Don DeLillo

“Bill Barich is a wonderful writer. His angle of vision is his very own, his prose is a delight.
Big Dreams
is a very winning book.”

—Larry McMurtry

“Mr. Barich gives us short biographies of historical figures while weaving in interesting bits of information about native tribes, explorers and settlers.… A book that is well worth reading.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Bill Barich’s wise, funny, heartbreaking meditation on California is the best read of the year. Few writers are so lucid and evocative, and no one provides more pleasure and insight page for page. Anyone who has ever loved or hated California should read
Big Dreams
. As should anyone who loves wit and language.”

—Robert Stone

“California, here, is raised to an even higher power—to actual poignancy. Mr. Barich writes with superb intelligence, with sympathy and unusual grace.”

—Richard Ford

“Bill Barich is one of the few writers left whose books I want to snap up and devour as soon as they hit the shelves. He elicits … stories that not only amuse us but remind us that everyone is possessed of a unique take on the world and that also make us somehow recognize a kinship of dreams with all those strange souls he encounters.”

—Robert Eisner,
Boston Sunday Globe

“Mr. Barich has his own voice, scrupulous but passionate too. He holds back on the details of his private life and throws himself into the details of other lives and landscapes.
Big Dreams
works because he keeps crossing the borders between history, reportage, and reverie.”

The New York Times


Laughing in the Hills

Traveling Light

Hard to Be Good

Bill Barich

Bill Barich is the author of
Laughing in the Hills, Traveling Light
Hard to Be Good
, His writing has appeared frequently in
The New Yorker
. He lives in the San Francisco area.


Copyright © 1994 by Bill Barich

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Pantheon Books, New York, in 1994.

Parts of
Big Dreams
have appeared, in a different form, in
The New Yorker, Volt, Zyzzyva
, and the
San Francisco Examiner

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: •
Hal Leonard Publishing Corp
.: Excerpt from “All the Gold in California,” words and music by Larry Gatlin, copyright © 1979 by TEMI Combine Inc. and Songs of All Nations. All rights for TEMI Combine Inc. controlled by Combine Music Corp. and administered by EMI Blackwood Music Inc. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Publishing Corp. •
New Directions Publishing Corp
.: Excerpts from
The Day of the Locust
by Nathanael West, copyright © 1939 by The Estate of Nathanael West, copyright © 1966 by Laura Perelman. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. •
Rondor Music International
: Excerpt from “California Girls,” words and music by Brian Wilson, copyright © 1965 by Irving Music, Inc. (BMI). Copyright renewed 1993 by Irving Music, Inc. (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission of Rondor Music International. •
Sony Music Publishing
: Excerpt from “Kern River” by Merle Haggard, copyright © 1985 by Tree Publishing Company, Inc. All rights administered by Sony Music Publishing, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Sony Music Publishing. •
University of California Press
: Excerpts from
Up and Down California in 1860–1864
by William H. Brewer, translated and edited by Francis Farquhar, copyright © 1949 by The Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Pantheon edition as follows:
Barich, Bill.
Big Dreams/Bill Barich.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-80065-7
1. California—Civilization—20th century. 2. Barich, Bill—
Journeys—California. I. Title.
F866.2.B37  1994
979.4′05—dc20  93-43213

Map design by Vikki Leib


To Patsy and Nora
Girls of the Golden West

I tried hard to imagine another earth and could not.
I tried hard to imagine another heaven and could not.

Czeslaw Milosz, “From the Rising of the Sun”

I love you, California, you’re the greatest state of all

I love you in the winter, summer, spring, and in the fall

I love your fertile valleys, your dear mountains I adore

I love your grand old ocean and I love your rugged shore

Where the snow-crowned Golden Sierra

Keep their watch o’er the valley’s bloom

It is there I would be in our land by the sea

Every breeze bearing rich perfume.

It is here nature gives me her rarest. It is

      Home Sweet Home to me,

And I know when I die I shall breathe my last sigh

For my sunny California.

F. B. Silverwood and A. F. Frankenstein
California State song

: California poppy

: Valley quail

: Giant redwood

: Desert tortoise (endangered)

: Golden trout (endangered)

: Dog-faced butterfly (endangered)

: Grizzly bear (extinct)


In California, if you go out to take a sunbath, when you wake up you’re middle-aged.

Ludwig Bemmelmans


1957, a boy on my Long Island block stopped me after school one afternoon and told me that the Brooklyn Dodgers, my favorite baseball team, were definitely moving to Los Angeles. The shock to my system was extreme. I was thirteen years old and had never been betrayed before.

Those first, rare ball games from the Coast were watched closely at our house. I remember being awestruck by the billowy palm trees and the perfect weather. I thought, It never rains out there! Everything looked fresh and clean, spared from the urban grime of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Even on our midget TV screen, I noticed an appealing absence of tension, as if everyone in the pastoral West were granted enough space at birth to satisfy each wish.

At that instant, my perception of the universe altered subtly. No longer was California just a musical name at the far edge of a map in my geography book. Now it was real instead of imaginary, a place that anyone could go to, where people actually lived. Here was the start of an obsession.

All winter, as I walked dejectedly over our frozen playground diamonds, I pictured myself transported to the Dodgers’ tropical stadium for some batting practice. The fantasy had a healthy radiance,
an aura of well-being. My own neighborhood, a subdivision of almost identical Levitt tract homes built on some plowed-under potato fields, seemed threadbare by comparison. The landscape had no glamour. Snow fell and then melted, and slush slopped into your boots.

In high school, I listened to the Beach Boys’ records and went to the Meadowbrook Theater near no meadow or brook to see B-grade beach-party movies shot in Malibu, wherever that was. The atmospheric blend of sand, surf, and blondes in bikinis spoke profoundly to my teenage narcissism, and I began to ache for some contact with California and all the bright, sexy, untarnished things it represented.

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