Editor’s Note: We’re giving Jim Miller’s column a week off to celebrate the publication of his new book.
By Jennifer Cost
I have spent a lot of time in the past thirty years kayaking, hiking, and backpacking in the western United States–in Alaska, the Sierra Nevada, the Lost Coast, the Wind River Range, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Beartooth/Absarokas, the Grand Canyon, the Anza Borrego Desert, and the San Juan part of the Colorado Rockies.
On every backpacking trip for the past twenty years, I have walked through or around larger and larger areas of charred forest, and from most mountaintop views, rust brown swaths of dead conifers cut through the healthier dark green forest of the surrounding mountains.
In the backcountry, I routinely scan the sky for foreboding plumes of smoke, and once a year find myself walking through a smoky haze, wondering if this hike would be my last. I have always walked out. But for millions more of the world’s species, there is no escape from fire, drought, dying oceans, and epic deluges.
Jim Miller’s beautiful and searing novel, Last Days in Ocean Beach, brings the reader to reckon with the Anthropocene: how we proceed in the face of mass extinction, humans’ willful denial of the enormity of loss, and finally how we grapple with these losses as we must move forward. I found myself swimming easily in the narrative flow, as if Miller had opened a fast-moving current, plunging me into the midst of everything I had thought, dreamed, wished, and dreaded in my life-long love of the world’s wildernesses.
Located in the still gritty, non-gentrified San Diego Ocean Beach neighborhood, we first find the lovable main character, William (after William Blake), as he wakes up to rogue parrots squawking outside his window. Soon after, we meet others in William’s humble apartment complex whose lives intersect. I found myself completely taken with William’s friends and colleagues, who search for meaning and purpose as climate change, consumerism, and fossil fuel consumption hasten the demise of every living thing.
I found the characters’ squaring with our bleak prospects a relief and incredibly sad, and was drawn into great conversations, humor, and a deep appreciation for life as we still have and know it. One such moment happens with William and Alexander talking over a couple of IPAs as they dive into such concepts as Bill McKibben’s “change blindness.” The conversation is smart, effortless, and humble. Alexander explains to William:
“ [. . . ] as the natural world is progressively degraded, each new generation grows up with less biodiversity and a more thoroughly impoverished experience of the natural world. So, in a sense, human imagination, so long tethered to the wonders of the world as a source of inspiration, is undergoing its own kind of extinction,” mused Alexander.
“Exactly. And what do we do about this?”
“Get me another beer and I’ll come up with something.” William smiled and went to grab two more IPAs as Alexander sighed and took in the reddish-gold sky and the shining path to the sun on the water. William came back quickly with the beers.
Last Days in Ocean Beach finds us at the edge of the world as we have known it, and Miller’s characters show us in their lives both small and grand, what Howard Zinn calls an “optimism of uncertainty.” In these lives is the fabric of solutions that will slow our ecosystems’ demise.
“What did Ursula LeGuin say? We need writers who can deal with the hard times to come?” Alexander asks William.
Jim Miller is one writer we all need to read as he takes us through a range of experience and emotion; in this book, we see how we might consider how to love, grieve, and hope in what feels like the end times.
Jennifer Cost is a Professor of English at Mesa College and leads hikes for the Sierra Club
Last Days in Ocean Beach is the story of William, a scientist working at the Center for Extinction Studies, a think tank at the College of the Sun funded by a green billionaire. William lives “on the border between dread and wonder” as he desperately works to raise the alarm about climate change and its dire consequences to an apathetic public, learns to live with grief and hold on to love. Along the way, we meet the residents of his wonderfully shabby apartment complex in Ocean Beach–bikers, hippies, skate punks, adventure tourists, reggae singers, aimless young professionals, Iraq war veterans, decadent retirees, a hospice nurse, and a Buddhist monk, all of whom are searching for something, looking to live more fully. Last Days in Ocean Beach is a blues song moaning and rocking the beach party at the end of the world.
“Jim Miller’s protagonist observes what each one of us knows–we’re all heedlessly driving and flying our way to oblivion. At a time when our planet is under siege, this important novel explores how delicately our individual lives and our relationships are woven into its future and the future of human life.”
–Sandra Alcosser, author of Except by Nature
“Jim Miller manages to find real warmth in the cold light cast by our apocalyptic moment; this is a rare instance of actually dealing with, instead of attempting to ‘fix,’ the cascade of emotions and ideas that naturally come from the immensity of the challenges around us.”
–Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth
For more information on City Works Press and to buy a copy of Last Days in Ocean Beach, go here: www.cityworkspress.org
Jim Miller will be reading from Last Days in Ocean Beach this Friday at the Reclaiming the Humanities Conference at City College (this event is at capacity) and then at Tiger! Tiger! (3025 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park) on May 6th at 5:00 PM and finally at Torque Moto Café (3604 30th in North Park) for an SD350 fundraiser on May 12th at 4:00 PM (all proceeds from book sales will be donated to SD350).