Penguin Press (January), $24.95
Not to fear -- the "ruins" in the title of Martha Sherrill's third novel don't refer to the earthquake-flattened remnants of some bygone, decadent Golden Era. But the title is still draped in metaphorical meaning: "Ruin" is the last name of the family whose daughter splits her 1970s youth between her rigid mother's home in Los Angeles and her dad's swingin' North Beach pad in San Francisco. Through the eyes of the matter-of-fact narrator, Inez Garcia Ruin, we get a richly detailed picture, in the Didion vein, of an atmospheric, iconic time for the state and the nation. Drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll, and the twin dreads of Nixon and Reagan all get their place on the page, but it's in the quiet family dynamics (especially in scenes between Inez and her father) that Sherrill's talent for observation and mood really shine. The young Inez is crawling out from beneath the rubble of a time of dispassion and dysfunction, making it seem lame even to try to reconcile her faults and fears. As this self-proclaimed "baton of a girl" is passed around and allowed to drift between vibe-heavy locales, Sherrill sketches an ever more uncompromising portrait of Inez, who eventually longs to discard her dissolute past. By the end of the novel, Inez has fled to the only location in the world more laid-back and un-heavy than California (that would be Hawaii), where she slips into a druggy existence with her half-brother. The narrative has lost some steam by this point, but the reader is left with the impression that Inez will emerge from the family Ruin unscathed.