ONE THING THIS ANTHOLOGY DOES VERY WELL IS GIVE A reader a sense of the sweep of time and how different decades produced disparate attitudes about L.A. The years of WWII are chronicled by Christopher Isherwood and Salka Viertel, who evoke the life of the European-emigrant community that settled in Santa Monica Canyon. We also see what's been lost in a city of disposable architecture: Many places referred to are simply gone or altered beyond recognition -- the Ambassador Hotel, the Townhouse, Bullocks Wilshire, the Brown Derby, the old Pershing Square of John Rechy's trysts where David Hockney tells us he was also inspired to look for love (or its carnal stand-in), and the black jazz clubs of Central Avenue, celebrated here by Walter Mosley, in an excerpt from Devil in a Blue Dress, as well as in beautiful, honest essays by Art Pepper, Charlie Mingus and Jack Kerouac. They all make you wish you'd been there in its heyday, just to see the beautiful women dressed to the nines and hear the music of geniuses.
Kerouac, of course, gotL.A. To him it had the "beatest characters in the country swarming on South Main Street with the smell of weed and chili beans and beer on the air." Never mind that the essay ends with him in Arcadia, trying to hitch a ride to New York with his Mexican girlfriend and getting nothing but abusive lip from high school punks until finally he gives up and spends his last few bucks on a motel. L.A., he thinks, is the "loneliest and most brutal of American cities," but it's a jungle with a damned good beat.
Arcadia pops up again, in Charles Bukowski's story "The Death of the Father," a hilarious account of going to that dreary burb to clear out his parents' house after his father's death, of giving everything away, piece by piece, to the predatory neighbors.
At times, reading these essays, it seems no one has a good word for L.A., but then you come across a surprise, like Simone de Beauvoir, who blew through in 1948 and who finds the name California is "almost as magical as New York," or Bertolt Brecht, who salutes the place as "Tahiti in the form of a big city." Then there's native son Lawrence Weschler's rhapsodic "L.A. Glows," in which he grows weepy, literally, over our beautiful light.
A lot of pieces, such as Weschler's, those by Mike Davis and Carey McWilliams, and the excerpt from Carolyn See's lovely Golden Days, will already be familiar to many readers, but that doesn't mean you won't revisit them with pleasure. I thought some essays didn't belong -- as much as I like M.F.K. Fisher, her writing here feels inferior. Evelyn Waugh seems dated, Octavio Paz cursory. Ross Macdonald could be writing about anywhere, and John Gregory Dunne offers up a kind of slobbery me-fest and makes one too many references to "my wife" without ever mentioning her name, which, of course, happens to be Joan Didion, whose own contribution of early essays -- perhaps because she's been so imitated -- seem to lack the pizzazz they once had. I could have done without the few poets Ulin included, mostly because the poems didn't feel that strong. I missed some writers -- Ralph Rugoff, for instance, who's always been a great observer of L.A. And where is T.C. Boyle?
Still, for anyone who loves the city as much as I do, for those of us who like our charm a little twisted and tweaked, Writing Los Angeles will make you even crazier for L.A., whether or not the city ever gets its "prollems slobbed," as Edmund Wilson put it (think bad cops, a boondoggle subway, the travesty of Belmont).
The inclusion of strong contemporary voices, like Wanda Coleman, Lynell George, Garrett Hongo, William T. Vollmann and Pico Iyer make the book feel up to date. To many of these writers the future and L.A. are synonymous. The city is a paradigm of our age, advancing a notion of a multicultural world governed by intractable forces. "What is true of the world is doubly true of America," Iyer writes in his essay on LAX, "and what is doubly true of America is quadruply true of Los Angeles." This traduced and disparaged metropolis is, then, what all its detractors always feared it might be -- the A-ticket to the 21st century. For better and worse, here we are.
Judith Freeman's most recent novel isRed Water.