Just as Joan Didion once traced the deep fissures in Southern California’s sun-kissed façade, poet-turned-novelist Sesshu Foster brings to life places one can’t visit from the inside of a car. His 1996 poetry book, City Terrace Field Manual, the title a clever allusion to the skill and knowledge that he had to acquire to survive an Eastside L.A. child(hood), stands as a searing, metaphorical rough guide to parts seldom seen by affluent Westsiders. His most recent, 2005’s Atomik Aztex, a gruesomely comic novel also set in L.A., has just won the Believer Book Award for “the year’s bravest and most ambitious work of fiction.” This hallucinatory alternative history shows the long-defeated Spanish conquistadors banished to a footnote in history while the Aztek Socialist Imperium have “konquered” Europa, including “Swizzleland (pocket knives, watches, banks: all things you can manipulate with your hand in someone’s pocket).” Via the miraculous circular nature of Aztek cosmology, Foster has his warrior protagonist drop through time and space to work double shifts in the “warm moist red air” at Farmer John, the largest pork-processing plant west of the Mississippi, located in the downtown-adjacent city of Vernon. In a jocular novel where violence liberates and enslaves at the same time, History (with a capital “H”) is rendered as organ grinder, quite literally — monkey included. In interviews, the bearlike, 6-foot native Angeleno describes himself as the son of “a white dad and a Nisei [Japanese-American] mother” who grew up in “a Chicano barrio.” Not exactly Hollywood central-casting fodder, which might in part explain why Foster longs to put a face to L.A.’s unseen, those who toil beyond the glare of Hollywood’s hot, white halogen lamps.

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