Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel

A look back at the California mid-century dream

For those of us living in an age of high unemployment, foreclosures, and diminished expectations, suburban life in 1960s California seems like a distant dream. Working-class men, their fingers worn by honest labor, witnessed the invention of comforts designed to take the hurt off with a beer after a long day: frozen food, washer/dryer combos, and a square of unfenced grass called a lawn. Their sons dragged the perfumed streets, discovering James Brown and trying their damnedest to work less than their fathers and avoid the draft. Mothers experimented with neon-yellow cake mix and fresh asparagus year-round. It was a time even the new home movie camera couldn’t capture: the silent hope of better things to come and the fleeting good fortune of mid-century.

With the sharp wit of a master storyteller, Fred Setterberg chronicles his childhood in the postwar Eden of Jefferson Manor, a blue-collar suburb of Oakland. Like a Bay Area Garrison Keillor or Bill Bryson, Setterberg reveals the quirks of his family and neighbors with nuance and care. Each chapter propels him toward adulthood while poignantly exploring class, masculinity, and modern life amidst the intoxicating abundance of a new California. In advance of this book’s publication, sections of Lunch Bucket Paradise have won prizes from The Florida Review, Literal Latte, and Solstice Literary Magazine.

Fred’s coming-of-age casts a bittersweet pall on today’s world in light of the good life far out of reach for working-class families today. Reading his words, we realize the true meaning of the phrase “lunch bucket paradise”: it symbolizes an era of prosperity for blue-collar Americans that may never come again.

Hear Fred Setterberg discuss his “true-life novel” and read an excerpt at the Pleasanton Library, near where he grew up:


“Smart, funny, endearing.”

—Minneapolis Star Tribune


“A wonderful book.”

—Beyond Chron


“An excellent debut. One of the best new novels of 2011.”

—San Jose Mercury News


“The prose is deliciously generous, precise, and evocative...I love this story!”

—Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog and Townie


Lunch Bucket Paradise is a rare find, a book that in so many scenes and shades of story has a eerie prescience for the future of California... It's the narrator's voice, watching his parents —classic American characters!—navigate their lives as Californians, and Americans, in this place.  He's funny, wry, and watchful—a great tour guide to his own place.”

—Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon and Take One Candle Light a Room


“This darkly humorous and affectionate but utterly unsentimental, look at the world of the ‘Greatest Generation’ recreates a time as lost to us today as our own youth. Fred Setterberg is a storyteller with incisive talent and a large heart.”

—John Raeside, founding editor of Oakland’s East Bay Express 


“More than an autobiographical novel, Lunch Bucket Paradise is a lyrical probing into the passion and history of the working class California myth, the American dream.”

—Lee Hope, editor, Solstice


“A brilliantly clear window onto a world that seems alternately seductive, threatening, and intensely nostalgic (and often all three). I love his storytelling and admire his language. But I have no desire to visit to Frog Island with him.”

—Jeff Greenwald, author of Snake Lake

About the Author

Fred SetterbergFred Setterberg is the coauthor, with Lonny Shavelson, of Toxic Nation, Under the Dragon: California’s New Culture, and five other books, including the award-winning The Roads Taken: Travels Through America’s Literary Landscapes. He has been a staff writer for the East Bay Express and editor of Travelers’ Tales America, and has written for the New York Times, The Nation, and scores of other national and regional magazines. He lives in Oakland, California. Visit his website at