Photo by Debra DiPaolo
L.A. HAS BEEN CALLED MANY THINGS BY MANY PEOPLE -- BIG, messy, centerless, the ugliest city on Earth, the biggest hick town in all the hick land. That it is a bleached-out, sprawling whore of a metropolis, where a single street can stretch for over 70 miles (that would be Sepulveda), can't really be denied. Founded by bunco artists and faddists, rubes and hucksters, with vulgar tastes and bottomless greed, it survives by means of stolen water, two-bit dreams, and an arterial system of byways that cater to its first love, the automobile.
The clichés about L.A. have always been framed by what it is not. It is not a place where one can walk, making it somehow not a "real" city, meaning it isn't Paris or Rome or San Francisco. Neither is it "cultured" or "sophisticated." But mostly what it is not is New York: It is the perennial opposite, the Dionysian and reckless West rather than the Anglo-European, staid East. So where does all this hostility come from, these rancorous winds that seem to forever blow in our direction? What, in defense of itself, can L.A. say on its own behalf? And is a defense even required any longer?
A good place to find answers to these questions is Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, published this week by the Library of America and edited by David L. Ulin (a Weekly contributor). Here, in some 90 essays, stories and poems, are to be found the thoughts of a variety of writers whose reflections on the City of Angels span more than a hundred years.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the fact that a good number of the writers included in the mix -- such as Edmund Wilson, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe -- never really lived here but rather checked in just long enough to try to pin the place in a few thousand words. The title might lead you to think otherwise. But L.A. being what it is, that is to say the flawed golden land, emblematic of America's "extravagant myths of private gratification and self-realization," to quote Reyner Banham, it has, of course, inspired many outside writers to have a poke at it.
The collection, like the city itself, is rife with ups and downs, and many of the usual suspects turn up, plying their favorite themes. Budd Schulberg nails the Hollywood crowd, while James Ellroy does the cops, Evelyn Waugh covers death, and Tom Wolfe, the car culture. Sometimes things overlap to the point of redundancy -- Schulberg and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, whose stories of lecherous Hollywood producers stalking would-be starlets strike a remarkably similar note. Still, this is a sumptuous feast of a book, well-edited and -presented by Ulin.
The opening essays, from the turn of the last century, by Helen Hunt Jackson, Mary Austin, Stewart Edward White and Vachel Lindsay, lay the foundation, bringing what now seems like rather old news of a city built on those phony myths with the developers and motion-picture industry to blame -- also swamis, yogis, preachers, love cults, food faddists and body freaks, in short all the quacks and opportunists who made the words Los Angelessynonymous with hype and greed. These are not facile observations, just familiar ones. It takes the more vigorous writing of Louis Adamic, Aldous Huxley and, especially, Edmund Wilson to begin to up the ante.
Of all the essays in Writing Los Angeles, none feels fresher or more replete with mental acuity and elegant writing than Wilson's "The City of Our Lady the Queen of Angels," a brilliant account of the Reverend Bob Shuler, who, from the pulpit of his Trinity Methodist South Church, ran his smear campaigns against public figures he didn't agree with, thus prefiguring the Moral Majority of our own age. First published in 1931, it's as hip as a jazz riff. Here's a passage on the city's churches: "Many cheery little odd-boxes, god-boxes, offer you a thousand assorted faiths . . . from Theophistry to Christian Sirens" and the "Buddha-like roguey old yogi," who sits in a garden with his devotees "while pink clematis or purple clitoris rises or droops in rhythm to the movement of the mystic's fingers." Clematis and clitoris? Now there's a festive little pairing.
The 1930s are revealed to be a vigorous time for literature in L.A., starting with James M. Cain's essay "Paradise," published in 1933 in The American Mercury. L.A. was "always about selling climate," Cain noted: The question was what to do when you got here and were faced with what he called the "dreadful vacuity." It's a theme that Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and John Fante all elaborated on. That The Big Sleep, Day of the Locustand Ask the Dust-- three of the best novels ever written about L.A. -- were all published in 1939 makes one think some very fine literary winds must have been blowing that year. Chandler's story "Red Wind" is a pivotal piece. It's so damned good you don't want it to end. You wish it could be the whole book.