Dana Johnson’s thoughtful and affecting first novel, Elsewhere, California, is narrated by a girl named Avery, whom we first meet as a child growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s. When her brother is threatened by gangs, their parents decide to move to the suburbs. Avery eagerly prepares for the “long journey” to West Covina. Her father responds: “Journey? It ain’t but 30 minutes up the road.”

Avery learns that however short the distance, West Covina might as well be another planet.

The chapters alternate between Avery’s childhood and her life as an adult, when she has become an artist, living with Massimo, an older Italian man, in his swanky Hollywood house, and she’s looking forward to an exhibition of her art at a Los Angeles gallery.

Avery’s language deftly evolves throughout the course of the book. Johnson writes the early chapters in the voice Avery used as a young child—”We caint go tricka treating. The Crips went and shot somebody, and the Bloods done shot em back”—while the later chapters show the way Avery has learned to speak as a successful black woman trying to move smoothly between society’s layers, a knack her best friend, Brenna, calls her “blendability.”

The young Avery, a sensitive, baseball-loving girl, is tortured by her awkwardness. She struggles to fit in to whiter and more-affluent West Covina, where she cannot afford the right clothes. “I’m tired of being called Imitation … Because everything I wear is like something else, but not the actual thing it’s supposed to be. My Izod shirt really isn’t Izod Lacoste. It’s got a horse on it instead of a crocodile.” Meanwhile, Brenna, her bold white friend, leads the way toward mischief, and Avery’s favorite cousin, Keith, follows.

Although Avery graduates from USC and becomes the kind of person others laud as a success story—”an affirmative-action baby”—she never ceases to be haunted by the dissonance between her past and present. Keith continues his criminal ways even as an adult, and although Massimo tries to convince Avery to forget him, it’s clear by the end of the book why she cannot.

This winning novel is replete with wise and poignant observations. At one point, Avery explains that art “only has value if the right people say it has value.” Elsewhere, California is valuable art indeed, full of heart, wit and insights about family, race, class and the Golden State.

This review originally appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).

Elsewhere, California

By Dana Johnson


276 pages, $15.95