The rise of Silicon Valley is the background for Sunnyvale, a moving autobiography by author and Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Goodell. This poignant story is less an analysis of the triumph and transformation of Silicon Valley than an intimate portrait of how those changes affected one family. In the opening chapters, Goodell describes his idyllic childhood in a small town whose very name suggests optimism. The oldest of three children, Goodell enjoys the privileges of middle-class upbringing a comfortable home, good schools, a hobby of racing motorcycles. Goodell's youthful aspirations for a career as a pro cycle racer end at an early age, however, when he is seriously injured in an accident. This setback causes Goodell for the first time to recognize that Sunnyvale life is not charmed.
This realization proves prophetic, as the reader follows Goodell through the surprising decision of his parents to divorce, and his brother's squandering of his talents as a musician in a haze of drugs and alcohol. His father's spirit and, later, health are broken by the dissolution of the family, and his brother spirals out of control, alternating between charm and rage, at times sleeping on the streets. Absorbing the narrative, the reader shares Goodell's frustration, being unable to do anything but watch as his loved ones' lives skid toward tragedy. Still, all is not sadness and woe. Following the divorce, his mother joins Apple Computer and becomes rich after the introduction of the revolutionary Macintosh. His sister, who as a child plays at Apple's Cupertino offices, as an adult becomes a member of a high-tech startup. Goodell notes that in any harsh environment, some possess a greater ability to adapt than others. But adaptation is not the only alternative for Goodell. Although he held a job at Apple Computer long before the introduction of the Macintosh, Goodell rejects the software industry and pursues a career as a writer. He attends college in New York City significantly, far away from California geographically and socially meets and later marries a flashy and talented classmate, and eventually settles in upstate New York. Goodell avoids overt criticism of his birthplace and the industry that has made Sunnyvale among the hottest real estate in America. Indeed, he frequently expresses admiration for the loose corporate culture at companies like Apple. His own departure from a computer career was in part propelled by the button-down software drone image in vogue at older firms like IBM. However, in telling his story, he makes clear the impact of the high-adrenaline world of software startups and the impact of an influx of instant millionaires. He relates his surprise that, during a visit, he discovers a fruit stand he remembers from boyhood still in operation. He then ruefully discovers that the produce is now selling at an exorbitantly inflated prices, and Sunnyvale's aquifer is tainted with toxic waste from runaway industry. Goodell's honest and insightful account is sad at times. However, Sunnyvale is also an inspiring tale of social survival. Its very existence reminds the reader that success isn't restricted to those with Internet stock options.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.