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Eastside, Westside:

Yxta Maya Murray‘s What It Takes to Get to Vegas and Diane Leslie’s Fleur de Leigh‘s Life of Crime

Yxta Maya Murray begins her second novel, What It Takes To Get to Vegas, on a high note: “We could hear them doing it down the hall. Us and the rest of the world, it turns out . . .” The mother of young Rita Zapata, our narrator, and Mr. Hernandez, the straying husband of “the unofficial mayor of East L.A.,” were “busy whooping and praying as the springs bucked and sagged under their bodies, while churchgoing neighborhood women laid stiff as twigs in their clean clean beds and tried to stuff a pillow inside each ear.”

Murray, whose first novel, Locas, focused on girl gangsters across the river in Echo Park, thus introduces an East L.A. that is no larger or more open than Hester Prynne’s Colonial Boston. The rest of the chapter, titled “The Fake Saint,” neatly sets out the book‘s themes: After a family stroll down Cesar Chavez Avenue for some shoe shopping, during which the Zapatas run into Mr. Hernandez’s wife (known throughout the book only as “La Rica Hernandez”), who “sucked on her teeth and said, ‘Get back, putana’” (“‘Nah, you get back, you old bulldog,’ Mama said”), Murray presents one Mr. Quiñones, who rigs a hidden garden hose to the eyes of a plaster figurine of the Virgin Mary and pilfers the offerings left by the faithful for the miraculously weeping Virgen. Quiñones is soon run out of town by La Rica and her cohorts, but falsely sobbing saints continue to abound. Rita, though, has early spotted the lie behind “what every Mexican woman‘s supposed to own no matter how dirty or poor she is: a nice healthy slice of the Virgin Mary’s self-control.”

At its best, What It Takes To Get to Vegas explores the rather explosive role of sex in relations between women and the many lovely sentiments that attend it, i.e., resentment, guilt, hypocrisy, greed, jealousy -- all those things generally grouped together under the rubric excessively idealized by liberals and conservatives alike over the last decade as community. It takes a village, Rita Zapata might agree if given to such speculation, to turn a sweet and happy child into a properly fucked-up adult.

Murray‘s novel is perhaps most remarkable for the extent to which the community explored is composed almost entirely of women. Her male characters tend to play the interchangeable roles usually reserved in fiction for women; they provide sex and status, but are for the most part little more than objects maneuvered in a game played by women, a game generally played with great cruelty and desperation. The most powerul scenes in What It Takes To Get to Vegas (it takes a man, if you hadn’t guessed, but it turns out to be hardly worth the trip) depict the vicious world shared by slutty Rita and her aggressively virtuous rivals, “las girlfriends,” whom she despises and envies in equal measure, and who most likely feel the same about her.

There‘s the day when the Zapatas go to Mass for the first time in years, to light a candle for a recently departed abuela: They watch as the priest “poured the wine and broke the bread, kissed his cross, and then waited for the church ladies to turn into cannibals,” which they promptly do, not from having eaten the transubstantiated body of Christ, but at the sight of Rita’s grieving mother, whom they quickly chase from the church. There are the many sharp-tongued exchanges at Lupe‘s Beauty House, a showdown at a closeout sale at Carlita’s Fashions, and a rare but poignant moment of sisterhood when Rita and her hoochie idol, Cherry Salazar, the only other girl in town “who every honest woman just loved to hate,” blow thousands of their boyfriends‘ dollars on blackjack and booze (in Vegas at last!) and toast themselves, “Here’s to us bitches.”

The novel‘s plot, unfortunately, follows Rita’s travails in the world of men. Not just any men, but boxers, who for Rita possess what little masculine glamour the streets of East L.A. have to offer: a chance at celebrity and riches, the hope of getting out. Her first sexual feelings are evoked by a touch on the thigh from a lecherous, washed-up ex-fighter (in a rather unsubtle bit of foreshadowing, after smoking the cigarette he gives her she lights her hair on fire and spends 12 weeks in the hospital). In a few nicely crafted paragraphs, she loses her virginity -- not without disappointment -- to another former prizefighter. Before long, Rita has bedded all the Rabbit Street boys, who fight for money in a local alley known by that name. Just when her reputation has grown to the point that she “could have danced naked on Chavez for a full day and still gone home alone,” in walks beautiful Billy, who can beat up all the other boys and doesn‘t care where Rita’s been.

But given that Murray lets it be known almost from Page One that Rita‘s collapse and final redemption are all but fated, she has a hard time mustering up any suspense once the plot kicks in. Long before the day when Billy buys her a cheap necklace, tells her she’s his “prettiest girl” and asks if she‘ll be his “good-luck charm,” it’s clear to everyone but Rita that he‘s not the gravy train she’d hoped. In the meantime, her blindness, and the chattiness of the first-person prose (studded with gossipy interjections like “I mean,” “mind you” and “what I‘m really saying is . . .”), grow wearisome. And in spite of some gripping fight scenes and the occasional hot roll in the hay, the road to Rita’s ruin gets old as fast as her hastily contrived last-chapter redemption takes form. On the way there, the more serious themes Murray promised to pick up in the early chapters are all but abandoned.

Across town, way across town, up in the canyons of Beverly Hills, wastes away a precocious little charmer named Fleur de Leigh, the unfortunately named 10-year-old protagonist of Diane Leslie‘s first novel, Fleur de Leigh’s Life of Crime. The child of two fairly despicable show-biz parents (her father, Maurice, the producer of the TV game show Sink or Get Rich, her mom the star of the radio drama The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Half-Hour and of such films as Chipewyan Chanteuse and Divorcee Ole), Fleur grows up in an enormous house filled with things bearing names like etageres, bibelots and salles d‘estudiers, is tended by a sizable fleet of servants -- several of whom are her closest things to friends -- and somehow manages to keep herself uncorrupted by, and even to maintain a certain humorous distance from, the megalomaniacal tendencies, petty cruelties and gross neglect that are her inheritance.

It is that distance that sustains the novel, which expertly re-creates a 1950s Beverly Hills that would be unbearable any closer. Poor Fleur’s father is largely (thankfully) absent, and her mother, who wakes up with “a glass of orange juice and a red amphetamine pill” and is lulled to sleep by “Mr. Seconal,” entrusts Fleur‘s care entirely to a rapidly shifting cast of nannies (catching us up between chapters, Fleur summarizes: “Tammy had replaced Melinda who came after Jeanne who had taken over after Helga departed”). She responds to Fleur’s excitement that a houseguest actually listens to her when she‘s speaking by saying, “That’s acting technique. I can do that too.” She doesn‘t, of course.

Despite the drudgery of Fleur’s days, Leslie manages to keep the tone of Fleur de Leigh light with slapstick (as in the chapter in which Maurice drives down Olympic Boulevard with his unwelcome -- she calls him Morrie -- oversize, muskrat-fur-wrapped mother on the hood of his Cadillac) and more than a little nostalgia for the days of drive-in hamburgers followed by apple pie with cheese on top. Only rarely does she stumble into sentimentality. As with Murray, Leslie is unable to live up to the promise of her first chapter, which was a prize-winning story before being expanded into a book. But if Fleur de Leigh loses steam at times, it‘s hard to hold a grudge. Little Fleur is just too damned cute.


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