Long-time Butte County resident Leslie Hale Roberts is married, the father of two sons, and a careful observer of the estranged and marginalized. He characterizes himself in an author's note as a disabled athlete, "founder of the Institute of Absurdity" and "a friend of those who suffer or fail."
There is much suffering, and much failure, in the thirty-nine "traditional and experimental narratives" that constitute "Voices of a City of Gold: Stories From Oroville, California" ($16.95 in paperback from Von Grafen Productions, available at booklocker.com/books/4393.html). The author writes me that the stories focus "on the lives of the . . . forgotten. . . . I believe it is an authentic depiction, offensive in some cases, and revealing and even tender in others. I have chosen to use often-vulgar language and perhaps irregular formatting and editing in hopes of capturing the essence of their existence."
The stories are not for the faint of heart. Framed by the trash talk of Duane and Mike, who repeatedly wind up in the Butte County jail, they show in expletive-laden agony men, women and children at the outskirts of "acceptable" society. Here there is prostitution, theft and thuggery, substance abuse (crystal meth is the drug of choice), and sexual violence visited on spouses and children. There is hardly a paragraph in the book that can be quoted in a family newspaper.
One narrator finds Oroville, "despite efforts from the city fathers to otherwise arrest the slide, now in the throes of decay and decadence, hope--and innocence--clinging to its tatters. . . . Unfortunately, the heart of Oroville, like many spent gold field villages, has cancered, its core no longer vibrant but in varying stages of rot." Oroville may be a recreational paradise, but some, many perhaps, are confined to a hellish existence.
The theme of "do not judge" runs throughout the book, though another narrator can't help but deliver a "morality sandwich" about the horrible legacy left by "the single mother with unattended kids."
The characters want to change, but can't. Lest the reader take too much "voyeuristic pleasure in . . . how those below so often fare," the stories, even as they assault common decency, provide uncomfortable moments of recognition. Let the reader understand.