_The Santaroga Barrier_ by Frank Herbert features an odd choice for a hero; Dr. Gilbert Dasein, a psychologist from the University of California at Berkeley, employed to do of all things a market study. Meyer Davidson, agent of a powerful investment corporation, one that owns a chain of retail stores, was upset about what was termed in the marketing world as the "Santaroga Barrier," Santaroga being a small farming community and town located in an idyllic mountain valley in California. Davidson was upset that his corporation - as well as others before him - had failed utterly in selling a variety of products to the people of Santaroga. No on in Santaroga bought cigarettes- those very few that were sold were bought by transients, people stopping in the community's one service station to buy gas - nor did they buy any wine, beer, produce, or cheese brought from outside the valley. The people of Santaroga would only eat vegetables, fruits, cheese, beer, and wine raised or made within the valley. A great many Santarogans worked to produce these items only for local consumption, as they "didn't travel well." The largest of these institutions was the Jaspers Cheese Cooperative, a large factory-like complex that employed many in the little town.
Dasein, with the help of the head of the university's psychology department, Dr. Chami Selador (working outside Santaroga), uncovered a few more interesting facts, notably that outsiders never found a house to rent or buy in the valley, no one moved out, and Santaroga never reported any mental illness, juvenile delinquency, or crime to state officials. All businesses, including the bank and the gas station, were locally owned. A few Santarogans left to go to college outside the valley - that was where Dasein met his girlfriend, Jenny Sorge, a native of Santaroga - and a few others served in the draft in Vietnam (the book was published and presumably set in 1968; various minor details such automobile technology, clothing styles, and the like point to this time period but are not essential to the story), though many come back due to unexplained allergic reactions to Army food.
Mindful of the lack of success of previous attempts to understand this mysterious "Barrier" and particularly of the fact that the last two people to investigate Santaroga met accidental deaths, Dasein journeyed to the town. Dasein finds at first a seemingly normal town of diners, farms, nice homes, a post office, and the like, a typical agricultural community. Several things though begin to get his attention; he isn't there long before he notices that the townspeople have a certain way about them, that they all seem very alert, to have excellent memories, a bit abrupt, sometimes rude, but at other times extremely caring and solicitous. Also, they are unfailingly and unswervingly honest, again almost to the point of rudeness. In addition, it seems everyone he meets knows who he is and his relationship to Jenny Sorge, as well as often knowing in general what he had done earlier that day.
Of greater interest though is the nearly fatal accident that befalls Dasein upon his arrival. His first night in the town's one inn nearly was his last as he almost succumbed to an old-fashioned gas jet for a lamp that was left on high. When he awakens after that ordeal, he finds that his briefcase - with his notes for the study - is missing and is in the possession of the town's lone law enforcement official. Invited to dine with him the next day, the man, Captain Al Marden of the Highway Patrol, questions his intentions in the town, making it obvious that he had gone through Dasien's belongings. While not threatening Dasein, Marden made it clear that the people of Santaroga were well aware of his reasons for being in the town, and while they supported " our Jenny" and therefore tolerated Dasein (to an extent), they did not care a lot for his marketing study. Dasein started to notice patterns in the speech and thoughts of Santarogans, of them often speaking of a "they" and a "we" and viewing the outside world in hostile terms, of being greatly suspicious of those from outside the valley, dealing with them only as much as they had to.
So, are the people of Santaroga just mildly eccentric, perhaps survivalists of a sort, wishing to have as little to do as possible with life outside of Santaroga? Or is there something else at work, something perhaps sinister, otherworldly, and alien? This being a science fiction novel, I am sure you can guess the answer, at least in general terms. The process where Dasein uncovers just what makes Santaroga the way it is was interesting and well written. Herbert did an excellent job building up a sense of mystery, and I enjoyed Dasein's interactions with a cast of very well drawn characters, notably Marden, Winston Burdeaux (a waiter at the Inn, one of the few "Negroes" in the town and not originally native to the valley), and Dr. Piaget, uncle to Jenny Sorge and the town doctor. If there was a weak point, it was Jenny Sorge; I never could determine why Dasien loved her so much, I found her character a bit vacuous, not as well drawn as many of the others, though it is possible Herbert meant it to be this way.
As Dasein got further and further into the mystery (and further and further under the influence of Santaroga's spell), there were many philosophical discussions, several I am sure reflecting points Herbert wanted to make about life and society as a whole. Many of these were made during some rather lengthy exchanges between Piaget and Dasien. It seemed that in addition to the "Jaspers effect" that was at work Piaget was trying to appeal to Dasien as a psychologist, to become one of them, a native of Santaroga.
An interesting and short early novel of Herbert, I read it in a little over a day.