Driving through it on the 405 freeway, you’d be forgiven for missing Fountain Valley altogether. Or perhaps chuckling at its “A Nice Place to Live” motto and Chamber of Commerce-style boosterism of a popular bowling alley, the Fountain Bowl. And what about that accurately, if unimaginatively christened, county park, Mile Square? A recent Orange County literary anthology references the former city of Talbert, once called “Gospel Swamps,” not at all. I know because I co-edited the collection, my research often otherwise turning up poetry, fiction and essays that changed my mind, happily, about so many burgs even more seemingly unremarkable or unlikely than this town of 55,000 on the Santa Ana River.
In fact there’s plenty of artful storytelling possibility in the history and place of shy, overlooked Fountain Valley: the tale of Colonia Juarez, its original Mexican-immigrant community. The amazing life of founding mayor Jim Kanno, who was sent to an internment camp but later became the first Japanese-American elected to that office in the nation. The painting and eventual destruction of the iconic “Fountain Valley Mural,” a centerpiece of 1970s street-art cultural renaissance. The arrival of Vietnamese refugees.
And now poet and favorite son Kareem (Paul) Tayyar puts his hometown on the literary map with a novel set in a version of his old neighborhood. The Prince of Orange County invites us to reconsider this otherwise-unassuming master-planned suburban town, named not for monumental fountains but for its almost perversely plentiful water table, a defining feature of this once-bountiful agricultural and sheep-herding region. Tayyar’s fictionalized memoir-meets-literary adventure dramatizes vivid and instructive episodes in the life of a young boy, Thomas Kabiri, as well as the city and county in the mid-’80s. And while the significance of this OC Anywhereville matters less to the 10-year-old hero than playing basketball, his 1986 summer vacation delivers a revisionist history lesson about community and empathy that perhaps anticipates Orange County’s shift from Reagan red to blue and argues that with encouragement, role models, intellectual and emotional curiosity, and some mischief, a boy might become a humane, empathetic man.
Thomas is, of course, a stand-in for Tayyar, himself a small but accomplished local b-ball star who became an award-winning writer and professor at Golden West College. The novel’s charmingly braggadocios title calls out its hero’s own youthful, joyful boosterism via his commitment to the purple pop-music icon. It also foreshadows the big revelation/realization that a small town with good people and, as it turns out, all kinds of diversity can prepare children for adulthood. Think D.J. Waldie’s honest, critical, if ultimately esteeming biography of Lakewood, a loving meditation on another working-class town easily disregarded. As Waldie did in Holy Land, Tayyar portrays a “more complex American suburb” than expected.
Complexity arrives through immersion in the everyday civic and social interactions of engaging characters living in his complicated version of the real-life place. Our hero resides in the Sunwood Apartments (the now-gone Shakewood Apartments, once on Slater) near St. Sebastian’s Church (Holy Spirit Catholic on Ward Avenue). He’s a diminutive basketball savant who joins pick-up games at Matsuya Middle School (Masuda Middle School). Thomas knows well the local blocks and avenues because, besides paying attention, he works a newspaper route when not listening to Prince and watching cartoons, Westerns and then-ubiquitous if campy Burt Reynolds car- (and women-) chase films.
An only child, this sincere if precocious Iranian-American kid (half Catholic, half Muslim) runs, dribbles, shoots and talks his way into the all-American lives of older kids and adults and is taken under the wing of a Jewish deli owner and coach and—tiny spoiler alert—onetime African-American basketball pro. His own father left Thomas and his hardworking mom in their modest apartment to sneak back into Iran for his grandma’s funeral in the oppressive old—and America-hating—country. That’s a gorgeous set-up for a small, intense life getting bigger, with a winning throughline of reconciliation and realization putting the lie to life here as boring. Tayyar’s lively, dialogue-rich narrative and Thomas’s keen observations make the kid’s ensuing adventures thrilling, from Newport’s Lifeguard Tower 32 to the Garden Grove Reservoir and Laguna’s Main Beach courts and even faraway Los Angeles—alone!—by train.
Best are those tightly dramatized iconic moments that made a crazy time memorable for both author and our diminutive if smart, sensitive kid, including witnessing the famous August 1986 surf contest turned teen riot at the Huntington Beach Pier, with cars set on fire, baton-wielding cops, even a police helicopter. Readers will delight in his frightened if hilarious take on that original iteration of an HB tradition that’s re-enacted by drunken belligerents nearly every Fourth of July since, with various added portions of alcohol, guns and white nationalism.
Thomas’ street-level perspective arrives in precise, idiosyncratic snapshots of everyday wonder: “You’ll see a trio of day laborers walking to the bus stop after a day spent painting houses for under-the-table money. You’ll see a 1982 Dodge pickup illegally parked in front of a blue fire hydrant that, for reasons which no one in the area can fully explain, has long been referred to as ‘Buddha.’”
Or, this, watching cartoons: “Why, he wonders, does the Road Runner never move on, go west, put some distance between himself and the Coyote, who obviously has an ax to grind he’s never going to get over?”
It’s funny and chock-full of movie, music and sports allusions, all argued over passionately as young people do. And yes, early on, the hateful anti-Iran bumper sticker is meant to hurt him, even as our sweet goodwill ambassador charms the neighbors; misses his wise, Persian poetry-reciting dad; and ruminates on the NBA, girls, sex, women in bathing suits, men watching women and girls in bathing suits—in other words, grown-up behavior and misbehavior. His observation about the riot might apply to U.S.-Iran relations, adult conflict, his friends’ divorced parents and more: “It seems impossible that the craziness of a few men has infected so many others in such a short amount of time, yet there’s no denying that it has.”
Celebrated as a local champ, the real-life local “wonder boy” Paul Tayyar grew up, didn’t make it to pro ball, went to college and grad school, then published acclaimed poetry as Kareem. He goes home again in this novel of appreciation for a Fountain Valley made so real—perhaps more real than it ever was. It’s remembered here, reconstructed and re-imagined, with both the proximity and urgency of youth and the thoughtfulness of maturity, celebrating an even-nicer place to have lived.