I FIRST MET Ruth Galm about ten years ago in San Francisco. I was sitting at the bar at Cafe Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s cafe/restaurant in the North Beach flatiron building he owns, right where Columbus and Kearny slope down toward the Transamerica Building and the Financial District. It was a spring day and I was into my second Espresso Nutini (I was an enthusiastic day drinker back then), and she was sitting at a table nearby, with a coffee (no booze) and a stack of papers in front of her. We started talking and it turned out she was a reader for Zoetrope: All Story, Coppola’s excellent short fiction magazine, whose offices were right above us. Both of us being writers, native Californians, and North Beach residents, our conversation quickly took on an easy and familiar tone, and out of it grew a friendship that has lasted over a decade.
She had recently moved back from New York, after getting her MFA at Columbia, and had a novel-in-progress that she let me read. A few things about her writing struck me right away. One was just pure relief that it was actually good. If you have any friends who are writers, you’ll know what an awful experience it is to read their work and find out that it’s not very good, and what a challenge it is to find enough to say about it that is both genuine and positive. (I’m pretty sure she had this experience with me a few times, but I can live with that, as there has never been any question who is the better writer.) From the very beginning, it was clear she had a knack for the sound and shape of words, and could make a sentence do exactly what she wanted it to do, even if what she wanted was to be surprised. She could create bright, burning images that lingered for weeks and months. She could render suspense and drama out of the smallest situations, and you could tell she was mining deep experience and desire to create this world on the page. I was also struck that from someone so outwardly modest and sweet could come writing so fierce and dangerous, so charged with dread and erotic heat. But that, of course, is where writers live – in that space between the inner and outer worlds, summoning the darkest forces at their disposal to give life to the gnawing, terrible mystery that can’t be silenced.
When I moved to Portland from San Francisco in 2012, much to my surprise, a few months later, she moved there too, ready to start her own new chapter. Though we didn’t see each other as much we should have, it was good to have her nearby, another familiar comrade in an unfamiliar city. However, less than a year later, she decided to move back to the Bay Area. Despite all the cultural and economic changes that had happened to our home state, despite it being less and less hospitable to those of us that had grown up there, something deep and necessary called her back there. Something unfinished, some part of her she couldn’t shake. I understood that. I have it in me too, the memory-pull of those endless brown hills and twisting cypress, the searing heat of the valley, all that golden light, crisp fog curling over ancient redwoods, the “fruit hang[ing] heavy on the vine,” to quote Kate Wolf. The blaze at the edge of the world, the very furthest tip of the American Dream, in all its blown-out, illusory, sun-beached glory.
When I read her debut novel, Into the Valley, which came out in August of 2015 on Soho Press, I finally understood fully what she had been after in going back home, and in her writing. It is a California novel to the core. The story of a young San Francisco woman in the 1960s (known to us only as B.), struck with a kind of existential malady she describes as “carsickness,” and the most effective way she finds to ease the profound discomfort of this condition is to drop everything and drive aimlessly through the Central Valley, cashing bad checks and encountering other adrift souls, as she hurtles toward a dark and uncertain fate. It is gorgeously written, lush in its language, unsettling, mysterious, and the ostensible aimlessness of the narrative has its own woozy, disorienting effect on the reader. One can’t help but sympathize with this young woman, but part of you wants to avert your eyes, knowing that the weight of her situation may be too much, and that she may be, despite all efforts, doomed. Continue reading