A fourth-generation Californian, longtime Kensington resident David Littlejohn recently published his third novel, The Big One: A Story of San Francisco. As the title suggests, the book centers around an imagined horrific earthquake of the future, but Littlejohn himself looms pretty large hereabouts, too. A well-known literary and arts critic for PBS, The Times (London), The Wall Street Journal, and KQED, and a Cal professor of English and journalism for 35 years, he is also the author or editor of 15 books to date. Littlejohn prides himself on his pioneer heritage as the great-great-grandson of a gold-seeking ’49er. But it’s Northern California’s other big motif—the inevitable quake to end all quakes—that’s the subject of his current novel. Following, an excerpt.
Prologue: The Day Before
Between the suicide moment and dawn on October 17, the sky over the Golden Gate Bridge was already more blue-black than black. Minor stars were beginning to fade. The six lanes of roadway were illuminated by a half-full moon on a fog-free night, along with 120 high-pressure sodium lights. Traffic was light, as one would expect at 5 a.m.—no more than twenty or thirty vehicles were crossing the span at any time, all exceeding the posted speed limit.
Suddenly all the drivers on the bridge felt a jolt, as if from a blown-out tire. They braked to slow down, and tried to decide whether to stop or drive on. Unanimously deciding to drive on, but with care—they could call Triple-A once they got off the bridge—they then felt that not one but both front tires had blown. They drove on more slowly, as their vehicles swerved out of control. From above, they seemed to be playing some kind of game, dancing some kind of dance, veering to one side then another, slowing down and speeding up, edging dangerously near to other cars and trucks alongside and in front of them.
A sharp-eyed seagull might have noticed that the steel cables of the bridge had begun to swing broadly back and forth, as they were designed to do in high winds. But they were also twanging like plucked guitar strings, and the roadway they carried bounced gently up and down.
What the early morning drivers were experiencing was an earthquake. The darkness around, the sense of relative solitude as they approached a still-sleeping city left drivers heading south especially apprehensive. Ever since the last big earthquake in 1989, they had been warned to expect this one: to bolt their walls to their foundations, brace subfloor walls and chimneys, strap water heaters and bookshelves to the walls behind them, learn how to turn off their gas lines and stock up enough supplies to last three or four days. The one thing they had not been told was what to do if the earthquake hit at 5 a.m. as they were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.
All parts of the bridge had moved more than seemed safe: the two monumental towers, the long looping suspension cables, the five hundred hanger cables, the roadway itself, braced by its Erector-set trusses. But within a few seconds any alert seagull would have realized that the bridge was not in danger. For one thing, the swaying, shaking and bouncing had stopped. For another, the massive majesty of the bridge seemed much too grand to be threatened by a few seconds’ twitching of the earth.
But the drivers below didn’t know that. In their imaginations, the swaying, shaking and bouncing continued. They didn’t know whether the bridge was going to make it or not. They kept swerving right and swerving left, braking and accelerating, to counteract the centrifugal forces they felt in their guts, putting themselves and their neighbors in more danger than if they had calmly proceeded at speed. Those who prayed—even those who had long stopped praying—asked God to let them make it off the bridge, and onto safe, secure land. Terra firma.
But how firm could it be? Could the bridge be spared, and the city itself still be badly hurt? Southbound drivers saw the night lights of San Francisco just ahead, tempting them to hope that the city had suffered no major damage.
A black sedan that had made it off the bridge safely and into the dark greenery of the Presidio kept trying to move into the right lane, in order to escape the highway onto Lombard Street and normal urban life in the hour before dawn on a Friday morning. But a defiant red truck stayed fixed to its side, speeding up when the black car sped up, slowing when it slowed. In the end it forced the sedan to miss the Lombard Street exit and continue on to Marina Boulevard.
Marina Boulevard, which ran along a bayside park illumined by the moon, still seemed to be rocking up and down, as sidewalks do to travelers after an ocean voyage. Each car on the boulevard, whether eastbound or westbound, seemed to be traumatized by the jolting roadbed that had just passed underneath its tires. Cars honked at one another more in fear than in anger. A few simply pulled over to catch their breath.
Suddenly, in a minor aftershock to a minor quake, the whole boulevard seemed to leap to the left. The black sedan turned sharply to the right, to counteract the lurch of the roadway, only to find itself bumping up over a curb and plowing through a hedge. The driver jammed a foot on the brake pedal just as the front bumper struck something hard. The car had come to a stop against an archway built of stone and wrought ironwork that led to the front stairs of a big Spanish-style house. Broad bay windows gleamed silver gray in the moonlight. As if in panic, the damaged car backed through the hedge and over the lawn, then eased over the curb and onto the street, which seemed finally, permanently at rest.
Excerpted from The Big One: A Story of San Francisco by David Littlejohn, copyright 2011. Reprinted by permission of Strategic Book Group.