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Early in Redlands, a novel by Philip Brookman, protagonist Kip and his sister Addie are sitting in an all-night diner somewhere near Redondo Beach. A trucker had given the kids a lift to the ocean from Redlands, the sleepiest corner of California’s Inland Empire and maybe the entire world, if Kip is to be believed. They’re waiting for their worried father to pick them up, though they weren’t running away, exactly. At 15, Addie was on the verge of discovering a larger world, while Kip was just clinging to his older sister.
As they pick over their fries, Kip asks about their mother’s death. He’d grown up with his father, a failed writer, in Mexico City, while Addie had taken care of their sick mom in Marin County. Kip wants to know whether she blamed them for the fact that she never realized her dreams as a scientist. Almost as an aside, he tells Addie a story about a painting their mother loved.
I remember how she used to show me picture books of famous paintings and she always went back to one, “The Agony in the Garden” by Mantegna, or something like that. Jesus is there in a blue robe, kneeling on this funky rock, and he’s praying with a bunch of very serious little naked babies, only they’re angels, standing there on a cloud looking down at him. He’s checking them out like he could reach right out and touch them, they are that solid. It’s like a dream and they’re showing him how he’s going to die. It’s so sad, I wonder why she loved that painting so much.
But it’s no stray detail, coming from Brookman. As a consulting curator at the National Gallery of Art (and before that, the longtime chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art), Brookman can only pretend to have casual opinions about paintings. Redlands is a coming-of-age novella about Southern California, but it’s also something of a meditation on images and how they form our memories.
The café scene bookends the part of the narrative that takes place in 1965. But before the text leaps ahead 10 years—to find Kip mired in factory work and other odd jobs in Santa Cruz, still struggling to understand his mother’s death—the reader is treated to a pair of photos. One is a two-page spread: a black-and-white picture of an itinerant street preacher, dressed in denim, sneakers, and a necktie that is too wide, too short, and too loud; on the next page, another black-and-white picture of coal smoldering in a park grill.
Redlands unfolds in two ways. One narrative, the text of the book, traces Kip’s path from Southern California to New York and back again. He discovers photography and learns that what he knows about his mother’s life isn’t true. The other story is told through photos and paintings—Brookman’s own—from some of the same places where Kip’s life takes him.
In some ways, the book is more like an exhibition or catalog than a novel. It’s primarily a work of portraiture, a diary of Brookman’s photographs, sketches, and collages spanning years, maybe decades. It’s curated: The enjambment between the street preacher and Mategna can’t be accidental. Sometimes the text-story intersects with the photo-story in tantalizing ways. The waitress who serves Kip at the beachside diner is named Judy; a photo that looks like it dates from the 1970s pictures a waitress wearing a nametag that reads “Judy.”
Yet Redlands isn’t an illustrated novel—far from it. The places where text and art connect are more satisfying than that. While Kip is working stocking shelves at a Woolworth’s in Santa Cruz, he meets a Swedish photographer who is traveling across the U.S.—“the Deep South, Detroit, St. Louis, Arkansas, the Dakotas, Arizona, Albuquerque, Indian reservations, California, everywhere”—to capture real life in America, in all its grime and resplendence. Maybe this alludes to Jacob Holdt, the Danish photographer who made the seminal 1977 photobook American Pictures, a project so raw and unsparing that Soviet authorities tried to use it as propaganda against the U.S. (Holdt delayed the book’s release for years to thwart the Communist bloc.) It might take another curator of photography to tease out all the allusions in Redlands, but it doesn’t take any expertise to appreciate the book.
One photo spread captures a woman lying on a bare mattress, staring out a window, a piece of luggage the only ornament in the room. It could be a portrait of Addie, whose life takes some dark turns. But it could be the photo, the sentiment, that inspired the work. Both the story and Brookman’s photos reveal an aching love for labor. His book admires the migrant farmworkers in California and is amused by the working-class punks in New York.
Brookman’s art pays homage to the work of Jim Goldberg, a photographer who has documented California’s class divide through portraiture. (Brookman edited Goldberg’s 1995 photo book on runaways, Raised by Wolves.) It also brings to mind author W.G. Sebald, who coupled historical photos with literary accounts in his haunting near-fiction about post-war Germany. But Brookman’s project is decidedly more poetic and atmospheric than either.
One of my favorite spreads in Redlands is one of Brookman’s paintings, a diptych landscape of two sailboats. Below them is a sequence of fast, gestural sketches in paint that resembles one of Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of motion. The Muybridge exhibition that Brookman organized for the Corcoran five years ago was one of the most important shows the museum ever mounted. It’s tempting to look for autobiography in any writer’s work of fiction—but in Redlands, it’s more satisfying to find the mark of the curator.