Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Houston dies at 75

The California novelist James D. Houston died last Thursday from cancer at the age of seventy-five. Houston taught at Santa Cruz while I was an undergraduate there. During those years he assisted his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki in writing Farewell to Manzanar, a memoir of the Japanese American internment during the Second World War. They had been married fifteen years before she finally confided to him that her family had been interned at Manzanar during the war.

A San Francisco native, Houston was educated at San Jose State and Stanford, where he studied under Wallage Stegner. (At Santa Cruz he was colleagues with Page Stegner, Wallace’s son. His closest friend on campus, though, was Ray Carver.) Between Battles (1968), his first novel, was based on his experience in the U.S. Air Force. Gig (1969) and A Native Son of the Golden West (1971) were the novels that all of the young writers at Santa Cruz read. The first was about a jazz pianist, the second about a surfer. Houston was not yet forty, and seemed to understand the countercultural youth about as well as we understood ourselves. Better, the truth is.

He also coauthored San Francisco 49er quarterback John Brodie’s memoir Open Field (1974). And he wrote five more novels, including Snow Mountain Passage (2001), about the Donner Party, and Bird of Another Heaven, a historical romance about the last king of Hawaii and his great-great grandson, which was published two years ago by Knopf.