As most East Bay denizens will easily reckon, the early days of local suburbia were no pastel-hued utopia. “For years, I’ve wanted to write about the community I grew up in — East Bay working-class suburbia during the Fifties and Sixties,” said Fred Setterberg. “The operative word here is ‘class.’ These weren’t the suburbs of John Cheever short stories or the entirely fanciful world of TV sitcom families. The suburbs were an experiment then, spawned in the aftermath of WWII with its attendant traumas, dislocations, and darker secrets roiling beneath the calm exterior.” Setterberg, who grew up in San Leandro, tried to write a straight memoir, but found that “my little life would not support the weight of three hundred pages.” He tried something more fantastically fictional, “with the spirit of my dead father egging on some reconciliation between his Depression-era consciousness and the soapy comforts of contemporary middle-class life,” but those efforts went down the road to nowhere as well.
“Finally, I began to zig and then zag between memory and confabulation, inventing far more of the story than I actually experienced.” He sent chapters to literary publications, where they were published and won prizes, so he devoted himself to the project. The result is Lunch Bucket Paradise, which Setterberg calls “fiction in the form of a memoir”: a collection of chronologically straightforward vignettes, absorbing and acutely written, of midcentury suburban existence, complete with science lab kits, handsy Greaser neighbors, war-torn relatives, snuck peeks at topless natives in LIFE magazine, the Alameda Drive-In, white kids playing in R&B revues, and the draft. “I peopled the narrative with individuals who didn’t exist — a counter-life to the one I actually lived.” The exception is the protagonist’s father, a larger-than-life, self-educated TB survivor modeled closely on Setterberg’s own dad. “Though most of the scenes between him and my narrator are invented, he’s still quite recognizable to those who knew the model.”
Setterberg was with this newspaper from its 1978 start. He contributed reporting and essays while acting as program organizer and then executive director for the East Bay Center for the Arts in Richmond, eventually joining the Express roster full-time as staff writer in the mid-Nineties. “I enjoyed the license and liberty to write 10,000 words about ants or the craft of stealing car radios in between less whimsical pieces about the working poor and the geography of homelessness in the East Bay,” he said. Journalism led to award-winning, full-length nonfiction on small-town chemical contamination (Toxic Nation) and California’s increasing diversity (Under the Dragon); a travel memoir (The Roads Taken); and more in the way of editorial and biographical works. But it was only natural for him to return to his own life for this latest book, since he had so much to say about the nature of friendships, family, and growing up suburban and male; and since he still lives here, in the shadow of the Grand Lake Theater, where he’s been studying storytelling ever since his knee-high suburban days.
Setterberg reads at the Albany Library (1247 Marin Ave.) on Thursday, February 2, and at the Newark Library (6300 Civic Terrace Ave.) on Thursday, February 9. See FredSetterberg.com/events.html for a full list of his Alameda County Library “Meet the Author Series” events this month and next. All programs are free and begin at 1:30 p.m.