Book Review: My Dirty California by Jason Mosberg

In Jason Mosberg's literary thriller My Dirty California, a young man descends into the Los Angeles underworld to find his family’s killer—aided by a group of strangers with their own shadowy pasts. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

This stunningly original novel is being labeled a “literary thriller” but I think that’s doing a disservice to the genre-bending nature of this smart, sensitive tale, that follows four protagonists in desperate search of solutions. Our main character is Jody Morrel, whose younger brother Marty comes home to Pennsylvania after a decade of living in California. The original move had left the brothers somewhat estranged despite their once closeness, a distance propelled just as much by Marty’s peripatetic lifestyle as by Jody’s own mental health issues:

The doctor diagnosed Jody with obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which she explained was different from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The symptoms include an excessive devotion to work that impairs social or family activities, excessive fixation with lists, rigid following of ethical codes, extreme frugality without reason, and hoarding. She started Jody on antianxiety meds he’s been taking ever since. Over the course of ten sessions, she steered Jody toward trying to avoid jobs and activities he might obsess over. Jody remembers laughing about the advice in one of the few lighter moments of the therapy sessions. Just avoid following your passions!

The brothers are barely beginning to readjust to one another when Marty and their dad are brutally murdered. The local cops have no leads, but Jody is convinced what happened must have had something to do with what Marty had been up to on the west coast, particularly in relation to the secret website Marty had told him about. My Dirty California is the name of a multimedia journal and travelog Marty had been using to chronicle his travels across the Golden State. Jody is sure a clue must be buried somewhere within the years of entries, and travels west with the website as his guide. His OCPD makes him the perfect, tenacious investigator to sift through this overabundance of information in order to get to the bottom of what might have gotten Marty and his dad so violently and senselessly killed.

In this endeavor Jody finds a series of unlikely allies. First and foremost is Pen Rhodes, the documentary filmmaker who has been obsessed with finding out how to escape the simulation (yes, a la The Matrix) she believes she lives in ever since her father disappeared some years past. Her latest lead involves the concept of an iceberg house, as she explains in a pitch to prospective producers:

“Iceberg houses are houses where you can only see ten percent and ninety percent of the house is below ground.”

 

They nod, intrigued, as Pen keeps going.

 

“Various rumors exist about Pandora’s House. Some people say the architect Zaha Hadid was paid eight figures to design a top secret underground property in Southern California but she had to sign an NDA, and no one knows where it is. Another rumor suggests the Church of Scientology began building a two-hundred-million-dollar bunker but abandoned the project halfway through and sold the property to a couple millennials whose parents had made billions in the dot-com era, and they use the house to throw elaborate weeklong parties. Some say it’s where the notorious lizard people live underground.[”]

Her search leads her to Marty’s website, through which she eventually joins forces with Jody to unravel the tangled maze of clues and corruption that obscures the end of Marty’s life. Along the way, their paths cross with those of Tiphony, a young mom struggling to make a better future for herself and her family, and Renata, another young woman chasing the American dream while evading exploitation at every turn. Their narratives seem to float through time and space till each protagonist, satisfyingly, finds the ending they deserve.

I was completely blown away by this novel, which felt equal parts Joan Didion and Mark Z Danielewski (even before the clever shout-out in the text,) with strong Kate Atkinson vibes throughout. Our protagonists are flawed and scrappy and utterly sympathetic as they fight against the criminal conspiracies that threaten to destroy their lives. With references not only to sci-fi staples but also to more recent Internet horror memes—in addition to very current political and legal issues—this is an of-the-moment novel that deserves to find a wide audience in anyone who enjoys smart books that, like real life, eschew narrow classifications in order to shrewdly and bravely face the challenges of the present day.

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