Reviewed by Darcy Munson Meijer (Gabon 1982-84)
THE 1960s AND EARLY ’70s were an especially interesting period in U.S. history, a decade of changes social, political and ideological. In The Isla Vista Crucible, author Reilly Ridgell examines many aspects of the era from the viewpoints of three students sharing a house in Isla Vista, the community next to the UC Santa Barbara campus. He looks at sex, responsibility, friendship and patriotism in a thoughtful, relaxed way which is both informative and enjoyable.
Meet the main characters:
Reggie, studying for his Master’s degree in political science. He is serious, diligent and horny. He starts the school’s first lacrosse team.
Donnie, his undergraduate roommate. A self-styled political radical and C student, he is self-centered and impulsive. He needs to maintain a 2.0 GPA to avoid being drafted.
Trent, the other roommate. Smart, rich, and goal-oriented, he is a babe-magnet.
The Girls Next Door. Five beautiful undergraduate girls whom Reggie hangs out with, talking, listening to music and smoking dope.
The action of the story takes place over an academic year — September 1969 to June 1970. Each chapter opens with the main points in the chapter and a selection of albums. Chapter 7, for instance, starts this way:
March 1970: A Lacrosse Almost, a Revolution Discourse, and Race Relations 1B
Music albums making the charts in March 1970:
Badfinger — Magic Christian Music
Joan Baez — One Day at a Time
The Doors — Morrison Hotel
Van Morrison — Moondance
Mountain — Climbing
James Taylor — Sweet Baby James
Frank Zappa — Burnt Weenie Sandwich
I grew up during the ’60s and ’70s and loved most of the music, so this aspect of the book was quite appealing. It also reinforced the diverse ways of thinking of the time: from earnest humanitarian Baez to New England balladeer Taylor to rock deconstructionist Zappa.
As the year progresses, the plot thickens. There is more girl confusion, more stress about grades and lacrosse, and more tension in the community over U.S. engagement in Vietnam. Ridgell’s depiction of undergraduate college life rang true for me. Like Reggie, I had the academic skills and sense of responsibility to attend college but didn’t know quite what I wanted to do with my life. I put down the establishment while depending on my parents to fund my degree. Most of all, I spent lots of time smoking and listening to music, looking for songs that spoke to me; songs that were real.
Along with the action at Reggie’s house, we get a bird’s eye view of two police officers, partners who don’t like the anti-war demonstrators, music and long hair of the Santa Barbara youth. One is older and has a family; the other is new on the force, aggressive and obtuse. At the book’s climax, the youth in Santa Barbara collide with the police force in a nasty display of police brutality and mob irrationality.
The denouement of the novel is gentle, as is the entire novel. The students break for summer, the riots stop and the cops go home. Reggie performs on his finals as we would expect, and he throws us a nice discussion point from his oral exams on the inexact and immeasurable nature of the social sciences. Human interaction will probably never be predictable or controllable. We are together in a melting pot — a crucible — and must deal with the larger forces at work on us. Ridgell, who obtained both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in political science, at UCLA and UCSB respectively, uses his mastery of political science to inform the plot nicely.
The finest aspect of The Isla Vista Crucible is its construction. Ridgell has created a very clear structure — the passage of nine months on a college campus and the actions and ideas of the characters, acting alone and collectively. The action is even and the characters are in harmony with the plot. Asked what moved him to write the book, Ridgell replied, “I wanted to write this book because I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay of place, time, and people at any one point in one’s life. The year at UCSB provided me with a broad backdrop within which to place the characters and focus on their reactions to the events of the time.”
There are a few elements that may keep The Isla Vista Crucible from the charts. Ridgell should have proofread for typos. Second, his ear for dialogue is not as keen as it might be. His characters sometimes speak “lines,” whereas people as young and aware as these should speak more idiomatically, more naturally. Also, whereas Ridgell uses dialogue to explicitly fill us in, I would be as happy filling in the gaps myself. My other criticism is aimed at the police officers: they are cardboard characters. In other parts of the novel, Ridgell demonstrates his ability to develop more rounded characters, but these officers are simply the law-enforcement side of the established order and not particularly human. They didn’t show a fair view of their side, as they should have.
Reilly Ridgell has written two textbooks, a short story collection and another novel. It is clear that he is an experienced writer. All in all, The Isla Vista Crucible is quite an enjoyable novel to read. It is simple, clear and knows exactly what it is about.
Darcy Munson Meijer served as a TEFL Volunteer in Gabon. She is the editor of Adventures in Gabon: Peace Corps Stories from the African Rainforest, a collection of the best stories contributed to the Gabon Letter during her 10 years as editor of that newsletter. It is available on Amazon.