Reviewed by John David Harding
"I don't get it, any of it—who I am, what it means."
Has there ever been a more concise summary of what it feels like to be human? Spoken by Joy Temper—the narrator of Paul Skenazy's Temper CA—these words not only capture the essence of the human condition, they also convey the problem at the root of Joy's existential crisis in this memorable novella about the intricate interplay of family, memory, and identity.
The story's setting is the fictitious Temper, California, a Gold Rush town founded by Joy's forebears. When Joy is young, she and her parents and a handful of family friends occupy a secluded cabin on the outskirts of Temper. This is the 1970s, and the nascent adults in Joy's household have few social inhibitions: they traverse the grounds in various states of undress; make love with their partners within earshot of Joy; and grow and sell marijuana to support their little commune. For several years, Joy's family and friends manage to maintain this Edenic, if haphazard, lifestyle. But trouble emerges when Joy's grandfather Isaac suspects that something more nefarious than a little pot smoking is afoot. Values old and new collide, accusations and threats are exchanged, and Isaac makes it his mission to shutter their Shangri-La.
The story opens several decades later on the morning after Isaac's death. His passing marks the end of an era for Joy, for her father, and especially for the town of Temper over which Isaac had ruled from the porch of his general store. Calling from Idaho, Joy's father reaches her at home in San Francisco and delivers the bad news. While sad, it is not uncommon for a person in their thirties to receive news of a grandparent's death, but Joy's response is far from typical: "He finally drank himself to death?" Here is a clear indication that Isaac was anything but the archetype of the doting grandfather. Later, it's revealed that Isaac doled out insults and, in some cases, violence toward his wife and toward Joy's father. Although Joy's father bore the full brunt of Isaac's malevolence, he encourages her to attend Isaac's funeral in Temper. "You used to be close," her father says. "Not that close," Joy replies. "Don't rewrite history on my account," her father rejoins. But before Joy can rewrite history, she must first uncover what the hell happened to her in Temper in the first place. Thus, she sets out on a circuitous journey of self-discovery to a place she reluctantly calls home.
Through Skenazy's carefully constructed plot, Joy mines the history of her complicated childhood in Temper with the help of family, friends, and two strangers: one who threatens to destroy Joy's personal life, and another who reveals an eye-opening family secret. Joy's exploration is cleverly situated against the backdrop of the Gold Rush, bringing to light the Temper family's ties to a period characterized by greed and competition. Joy is surprised to learn that her relative, Solomon Temper—the man for whom the town is named—might have violently obstructed the mining operations of Chinese and Mexican immigrants who were competing against Temper-owned mines. But Joy has no recourse for righting this wrong except to acknowledge her ancestor's wrongdoing. Though an important piece of historical context, this detail is the least surprising family revelation compared to the novella's other twists and turns. In particular, I was captivated by three central questions: Why was Isaac so concerned for Joy's well-being when she was a girl? What happened to one of the men (now missing) who used to live with Joy? And how exactly did Isaac die?
At a satisfying pace, Skenazy artfully unspools the answers to these questions. Simultaneously, several imbroglios and loose ends ratchet up the story's tension, especially those moments concerning Joy's longtime girlfriend, Angie. Described as a "financial handywoman," Angie travels for work more often than she should, coming home from one business trip just long enough to pack again and leave for the next. When Joy tells her about Isaac's death, Angie comforts her by phone from a Houston hotel room. "Do you want me to come home?" Angie asks before quickly adding, "I'm not even sure I'll get out of here on time. . . . There's talk of a law suit." Angie doesn't come home to be with Joy, nor does she attend Isaac's funeral. What emerges is a portrait of a stagnating relationship, one in which neither woman articulates what she wants from the other—if she still wants anything at all.
Left to her own devices, Joy makes a cringeworthy but inevitable mistake. By erring, she proves her bona fides as a round, believable character, someone whose actions have real consequences. As with the novella's other complications, Skenazy ties up this narrative strand at the end—but not too tightly. After a long and painful process of grieving, discovering more about her past, and coming to terms with the facts of her relationship, Joy must make one final decision: Will she return to San Francisco—and life as usual, if that's even possible—or will she make a new life in Temper? The latter is a viable option: her father has renovated the family's old cabin. All she has to do is say the word and the cabin is hers. But what does it mean to inherit this place, this town, and its complicated history? Can Joy thrive in the shadows of the Tempers who came before her? Although I knew that a "happily ever after" conclusion was not in store for Joy, I hoped she would find a measure of closure. In the end, Joy might not know who she is, but she does know who she isn't, which is all any of us can ask for when reckoning with the past.