PENNGROVE — Most mornings, after the Carneros fog begins its slow retreat south toward San Pablo Bay, Gerald Haslam throws on a jacket, dons his Oildale cap and takes his three-legged Labrador retriever, Sheba, for a walk through their hilly neighborhood in southern Sonoma County.
On a glorious morning in late January, Haslam leaves his kitchen table strewn with papers, file folders, hand-written notes and an open laptop computer: the raw materials of yet another book set in the great inland valley of California where he was born -- and more importantly, where he was formed.
"Sheba's not as agile as she was even a year ago. But then again, who is?" Haslam says as the pair set out toward a nearby creek bed where Sheba likes to sniff and explore and maybe remember what it was like to be a young pup again.
Both dog and master are cancer survivors -- Sheba's leg was amputated due to the disease, and one of Haslam's legs is badly damaged, a side effect of years of medication designed to keep his prostate cancer from spreading out of control.
"It's funny," he says, "how you fall apart a piece at a time."
As the pair walk through the tiny residential development, Haslam waves at a neighbor standing in her front yard, and nods at another who lives around the corner. But few of his fellow residents in rural Penngrove likely know that the retired Sonoma State University professor is the acclaimed and celebrated author of dozens of published works, including novels, short story collections, essays and such non-fiction works as "The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland" and "Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California."
Critics have compared Haslam to Twain, Steinbeck and Saroyan. The Los Angeles Times wrote that he "has created a tradition from scratch," while the late author and journalist Carey McWilliams, a former editor of The Nation magazine, described Haslam's writing as "country music set to prose."
Haslam and his wife and editor, Janice, moved to Sonoma more than four decades ago. The picturesque towns and bucolic countryside are pleasant, but they bear little resemblance to the vast patchwork of farm fields and orchards, oilfields and sprawling cities that knit together the Great Central Valley.
Sonoma is a great place to live, Haslam says. But it's not home. At least not in the most elemental sense of the word.
The "heartland" of his childhood remains the center of Haslam's universe and the central subject of his writing. It is the grand theme he hopes readers will carry away from his books.
"I want people to have a better idea of the complexity of California culture -- and settings like Bakersfield, like Oildale, like Fresno, like Tulare, in that larger picture of California culture," he says.
He notes in his 1990 book "The Other California," that the Central Valley has been virtually ignored by the state's "bleached-blonde-and-perfect-tan stereotype," the popular perception of California as an amalgam of Hollywood and San Francisco, somehow connected by warm, sunny beaches as far as the eye can see.
A good chunk of his life's work has been aimed at debunking this stereotype, and showing readers the richness, complexity and importance of the geography, the people and the culture of the valley, and the critical role it plays in the larger context of California.
"I don't want people to be able to look down their nose and act as if whole sections of the state don't even exist," he says, "when in fact they not only exist but are absolutely central to the reality of the state."
Kingdom of the rednecks
Born in Bakersfield in 1937 -- he turns 76 in March -- Haslam grew up north of the Kern River in working-class Oildale. It was here that young Gerry attended Standard School with another boy who would grow up to become a country music legend: Merle Haggard.
In a way, the two "Oildale Okies" were ultimately headed in similar directions, but on wildly different trajectories.
Both men would become keen observers and distillers of the life and culture around them. And the essence of those images -- the sounds and smells and flavors, the regional twang, the stark landscapes populated by plain-spoken, hard-working people -- ended up in both Haggard's songs and Haslam's stories.
"Gerry and I, we were looking at life through the same window," Haggard says.
"He took one route; I took another."
Author and poet Floyd Salas has lauded Haslam's writing for its "naked honesty" and its virtual absence of sentimentality.
Nevertheless, Haslam's portrayal of post-Depression, pre-television Oildale seems almost mythic at times.
In the days before TV pulled families indoors in the evening, parents in the neighborhood often stood in their front yards chatting or watering their parched lawns, their children playing nearby. The oilfields north of town were the neighborhood's most important source of employment.
"A combination of conviviality and bigotry characterized the neighborhood in which I grew up, the latter emerging only occasionally," Haslam recalls in his introduction to "Haslam's Valley," published in 2005.
His sensitivity to racial and ethnic stereotypes was heightened by the Hispanic ancestry contributed by his maternal great-grandmother, Esperanza Terril-Botella. And when as a seventh-grader in 1949 Haslam left the virtually all-white Standard School to attend Garces Junior High, and later, Garces High, he came in contact with Hispanics, blacks, Basques, rich students and poor.
Haslam's thoughts about Garces are made clear in his essay "Brothers' Boy:"
Today I view the decision that sent me to Garces to have been among the most important of my life. I had by no means been a juvenile delinquent in public school, but I was -- as a note from my sixth-grade teacher revealed -- a disruptive under-achiever.
Haslam's one-time school chum and lifetime friend Patricia Puskarich is even less charitable, describing young Gerry and Merle and another old Oildale friend, James "Jimmy" Wattenbarger, as "three of the biggest screw-offs you could ever find anywhere."
It's clear in speaking with Puskarich that her memories of the three are tempered by laughter, admiration and love.
"Nobody has done as much as Gerry to bring the valley's cultures and ethnic groups to light," she says.
"I read Gerry's books and I'm moved to tears. I'm always touched and enlightened by what he has to say."
And despite his many book awards and honors, she doesn't think Haslam has gotten the acclaim he is due.
One of Haslam's new friends at Garces that first year was Fred Dominguez, who had attended Our Lady of Guadalupe School in east Bakersfield's barrio before transferring to Garces. To this day, the two men remain friends.
"I visited Gerry many times in Oildale back in the day," Dominguez recalls.
The two sometimes would even hang out drinking Cokes at the Tejon Club, the neighborhood's blue-collar beer bar and a favorite of Haslam's dad, Fredrick "Speck" Haslam.
"In all those years," Dominguez remembers, "only one time did someone make a disparaging remark toward me."
Both boys came from limited means and limited experience, but to Dominguez, his new friend was "worldly wise."
"Gerry was an eye-opener to me," he says. "I didn't know anything beyond my neighborhood."
The Haslam home at 202 El Tejon Ave. may have provided a modest beginning for young Gerry, but the spirit and determination, the flaws and virtues of the people who surrounded him would inform his writing for years to come.
"I was very fortunate to be born where I was, when I was," Haslam says.
In "Haslam's Valley," the author writes of his home region as if it were part of his very skin, bones and internal organs.
In my heart, in the deepest part of me where I really live, I remain very much a product of my family and my region. Occasionally well-intended friends have suggested that I write about other places and other people, expand my vistas and perhaps my audience.
Well, I tried that and I found that the Great Valley grasped my innards like tree roots wrapping rocks, around and through so that it is difficult for me to tell if one exists independent of the other .
Not in Oildale anymore
The Haslam home in unincorporated Penngrove, just outside of Petaluma, is comfortable, but not luxurious, cluttered but not messy. Snapshots of the Haslams' five grown children and 12 grandchildren paper the walls of their kitchen. A bubbling fish aquarium seems slightly incongruous placed next to the sink in the bathroom.
Married for more than 51 years, the Haslams are unapologetic environmentalists, and they practice what they believe. They've sworn off the use of pesticides and herbicides in their yard, where ancient heritage oaks, huge olive trees and wild plants dominate. Wild turkeys, always welcome visitors, can be seen walking on their roof and through their woodsy backyard. Even spiders are cultivated as natural and beneficial to the Haslams' mini-ecosystem.
"I suppose if you're from Oildale, you crave trees," he says.
Despite his illness, its side effects and the aches and pains that inevitably come with age, Haslam peppers his speech with humor, which should not be surprising to anyone who has read his works, as his writing benefits greatly from the addition of that particular spice.
But like the rest of his work, even his humor is a tool he uses to search for truth.
"I'm not that dour," he says with a smile. "There's plenty of time for sadness. No use cultivating it. It will come."
Friends say Haslam has reduced his travel commitments, and he and Jan are thinking seriously of ending the tradition of the Bakersfield party, a reunion of sorts held each year at their home that brings together dozens of old friends from the valley.
Some cherished friends have died, Haslam says, and others are not healthy enough to travel. Despite having battled cancer since his diagnosis 16 years ago -- and responding by increasing, not decreasing, his writing output -- Haslam may have decided to dedicate a good portion of what's left of his still-vital energies to the books that remain in him. At least as many books as he has time to write.
When asked straight out about rumors of his own imminent demise, Haslam is characteristically forthright, good-natured and some might say Twain-like in his delight at poking fun at premature efforts to write his obituary.
"I've got serious health issues, but so far they are treatable," he says. "As far as I know, I'm not on my last legs, only my next-to-last ones."
The writer learned he had prostate cancer the day after Thanksgiving in 1996.
"I had surgery in January '97. It failed," he recalls.
The following May, he began radiation therapy and hormonal ablation, a treatment Haslam calls "the formal term for chemical castration."
The treatments beat back the cancer, but only for a while.
Haslam made real progress after joining a clinical immunotherapy trial at the University of California San Francisco-Mount Zion Cancer Center. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the daily injection was that it appeared to stimulate heart problems in some patients, including Haslam.
In 2002, he suffered a heart attack, which led to bypass surgery a few months later.
Now he's taking drugs that shut down his body's production of testosterone, the male hormone that fuels the malignancy. Loss of muscle mass and bone mass are just two of the trade-offs. For the former football player and long-distance runner, the loss of the lean, muscular body he always knew has been one of the most difficult adjustments.
"You know, you can moan and groan about it," he says. "On the other hand, if I had been diagnosed in Uganda, I would have been dead two years after I was diagnosed.
"So I'm grateful for the time I've had with these wonderful grandchildren," he says. "All 12 of our grandchildren have been born after I was diagnosed, and No. 13 will be here in a couple months."
So a foot race of sorts has begun. Haslam is in one lane, Death in the other.
"I asked my doctor, 'Do I have time to write a couple more books?'" Haslam says. His doctor answered yes. By all means.
And so he lives. He dotes on his grandchildren. He writes into the night. And he's grateful.
And painfully funny.
"I'm not the first person to die," he says. "Others have tried it. And if they can do it, I can do it."
'I've always been very disciplined'
Retirement from Sonoma State came in 1997, after more than 30 years of teaching. But retirement from writing? It's a concept that seems unthinkable to Haslam.
"It isn't likely that I'll live long enough to write all the things I want to write, but that's OK. I've had a good shot at it."
He's certainly not acting like a man whose days, as the song goes, have dwindled down to a precious few. He's working steadily -- sometimes well into the small hours -- on both a novel set in San Francisco during the Vietnam War, and a biography of Leon Patterson, a phenomenal athlete from Taft who broke several track-and-field records in the early 1960s after being diagnosed with Bright's disease, a then-incurable kidney disease.
"I've always been very disciplined," Haslam says. "It's just that because of the medications I've been on, my whole sleep cycle's been disrupted.
"I used to get up no later than 5 every morning and write before I'd go out to the university. Never did I let a day go by without doing some writing."
"I'm more a rewriter than a writer," he says. "The real quality of the work is in the rewriting."
Haggard and Haslam
What are the chances that such a distinguished man of letters and a legendary man of music could grow up in the same neighborhood in little Oildale?
In his book, "Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California," Haslam calls Merle Haggard a genius of the common man who became "perhaps the greatest ever" in the history of country music.
"It's wonderful to be included in a circle like that," Haggard says.
Of Haslam, Haggard has nothing but praise, acknowledging the pair might be, in a metaphorical sense, twin sons of different mothers.
"He's a wonderful writer, a talented writer," the Hag says of Haslam.
Even as fifth-grade boys in Mrs. Phair's class at Standard School, Haggard recalls liking Haslam, though the boys didn't run together all that often.
"I remember him. I knew him. We were friends," Haggard recalls. "But it's been so many years."
They hadn't kept in touch since "grammar school," Haggard said. "But when that book came out ("Workin' Man Blues") my ears went up."
There seems almost a tinge of regret -- or maybe a kind of stoic acceptance that comes with maturity -- in Haggard's tone that these two Oildale boys lost track of each other for so many years, even as they were, in some sense, walking parallel paths.
"It's pretty late in the game, Haggard says. "I remember we always had a smile for each other. We're cut from the same cloth."
'Thank God for BC' -- and marriage
Marriage was "probably the fulcrum point of my life, probably for both of us," Haslam says of his and Jan's union in 1961.
"We both had finished Bakersfield College. I was an Army veteran. I had had an unsuccessful college career right out of high school because I was immature. We used to say, '18 going on 13.'
"I had participated in sports (at Sacramento State) and partied a lot and dated a lot -- and flunked out.
Apparently, Sac State has forgotten or forgiven Haslam's brief and checkered academic career there. He was asked to be the invitational lecturer at the university this winter.
"I owe Sac State a lot, even though I was only there one semester," he says.
When Haslam came home in 1960 after a two-year stint in the Army, he was a changed man.
"Thank God for BC," he says.
As he and Jan were finishing up their general education requirements at the local community college, they decided to get married and put each other through school as that was the only way they could afford to do it.
"That was probably as much a motivating factor as attraction," Haslam remembers. "It wasn't a romance in the sense that I was breathless in love -- or that she was. We liked each other a lot and we trusted one another."
The relationship was more practical than storybook.
"I guess it's worked out," he said, smiling. "Fifty-one years."
The love relationship with Jan really grew during the marriage, and has continued to grow," he says. "She is indispensable to my life."
A measure of his success and his advancement academically came at his wife's expense, Haslam acknowledges.
Pregnancy, then motherhood, along with her husband's own drive to achieve a doctorate, came before Jan had the chance to return to school to earn a bachelor's degree in math and computer science.
"She was sharper than I was," he says. "She would have been a quicker Ph.D., and she thought about being an M.D. at one point. But by the time she went back, all our kids were in school and she just felt like it was too late.
"So the world lost a great doctoral candidate, but I gained a great editor."
Jan takes a pragmatic view of the half-century they have shared.
"We juggled jobs and juggled kids," she says. "It worked. He promised to put me through school. I promised to put him through school."
'... you finally have to find your own way'
"I look back at some of the early things I wrote and I can understand why professors wouldn't think I'd make much of a writer," Haslam says.
As a teen, he'd been a stringer for The Californian and was involved in student journalism.
"That's where I decided I wanted to write. Even when I was in the Army, my non-military job, my non-infantryman job, was as a reporter for the division newspaper and, occasionally, for the Stars and Stripes," the U.S. military's independent newspaper.
"So I was trying to be a writer, but I didn't know how," he remembers of those early days.
He studied Hemmingway and Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.
"I suppose when you first start out, it's all right to model a bit, but you finally have to find your own way," Haslam says.
"At some point ... it was the late '60s sometime, I began to reproduce the voices that I'd actually heard in ways that made them both recognizable but not redundant. And that's when the stories began to be published."
Haslam recalls an early collection of short stories, later published under the title, "Okies: Selected Stories," that helped him break into publishing.
He submitted the collection to a contest for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, a manuscript competition run by the San Francisco Foundation.
"To my great delight, I received one of two honorable mentions," he recalls. "The other one was Raymond Carver. Can you believe that?"
Buoyed by this bit of recognition, Haslam began submitting his work to publishers and agents.
"Every one of them uniformly rejected it," he remembers. "One in particular said, 'Your writing is interesting and promising but no one's interested in the goings-on of a remote California valley.'"
So Haslam had a few copies printed at his own expense, just enough to send out to reviewers.
McWilliams, editor of The Nation, somehow got a copy and wrote a positive review. Then novelist James D. Houston, who would later co-write the bestseller "Farewell to Manzanar," wrote to his publisher about Haslam.
Soon the publishing company Peregrine Smith asked for the rights to Haslam's stories.
"All of a sudden I was a published author," he remembers. "That was what really got the ball rolling. And that gives you great confidence when that kind of thing happens."
Haslam's confidence appears to have been justified.
His short story "The Horned Toad" has appeared in more than 20 anthologies. And the list of his literary awards keeps growing.
Publisher Malcolm Margolin, who founded Berkeley-based Heyday Books in 1974, worked with Haslam to publish "Haslam's Valley" in 2005.
Margolin came away from the experience with the distinct feeling that Haslam values honesty in his writing over egotism or any desire to impress critics or readers.
"There's an integrity to Gerry. There's a warmth and kindness to him," Margolin says. "He maintains a loyalty to the tone and pacing and nuance of the world he grew up in."
And there's something old-fashioned in his writing, like Soroyan, or even O. Henry, Margolin says.
"His writing is transparent. You don't stop as you're reading and say, 'This is good.'"
There's a quality, a foundation of humanity that runs through all of Haslam's work, Margolin says.
"If I had to put the right word on it, it would be love."