L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
Pitting Kate Braverman's Lithium for Medea against Héctor Tobar's The Tattooed Soldier is, in many ways, a battle of Los Angeles's west versus its east, no matter that the crumbling 1970s Venice of Braverman's book bears little resemblance to what we now know as the Westside and the action of Tobar's novel technically takes place on the occidental side of the L.A. River.
Lithium for Medea is the story of Rose, a 27-year-old with a dismissive, ambitious mother and a gambling addict father who's laid up in the hospital with cancer. The family moved across the country to Los Angeles after his first bout, when Rose was only six, and this time he's looking even worse. She copes by shooting up coke and having sex intermittently with her standoffish boy-space-friend Jason.
My colleague Falling James already has done a wonderful job describing the plot and prose of Lithium for Media, but it's worth repeating that this is a novel laden with powerful passages and references to whiteness:
I sighed. I was arctic white. The sea opened my icy lip. My path edged avalanches and albino seals. I was white under a white skull of sky in my own white season. It was a kind of permanent childhood Christmas. I stood in a room with tables covered by white linen. There were big white boxes tied up with white silk ribbons. I unwrapped knee-length white lace-up leather skates. I skated down pavement white with snow. There was ice. I didn't skid.
The Tattooed Soldier is the story of Antonio Bernal and Guillermo Longoria, the man who killed Bernal's wife back home. Now they're both in Los Angeles, on Crown Hill, in MacArthur Park, in South-Central, walking and riding public transportation, the city surrounding them, pushing them into each other as the L.A. riots erupt.
Tobar is a Los Angeles Times reporter who was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 1992 riots, and he's taken that experience, along with his Guatemalan heritage, and crafted a muscular book with a gentle touch.
So which is the better L.A. novel? Hellbent revenge on the Eastside, or beautiful decay on the Westside?
I've got to hand this one to The Tattooed Soldier, but not because that side of town represents the real Los Angeles more than the other. Both are real, and anyone who declares otherwise is using the same logic as Sarah Palin when she talks about the real America. Los Angeles is both sides, the sum of its parts and so much more.
While Lithium for Medea breathfully describes a unique time and place in the city's history, The Tattooed Soldier looks back at an event that's now 20 years gone and still manages to cast us forward into the city's future. Tobar delves deeply into several of his characters — an advantage to writing in the third person — and even humanizes murder, while Braverman gives us so, so much of Rose but not much of anyone else.
This city is a kaleidoscope of perspectives, and The Tattooed Soldier comes a little closer to capturing the whole.
Winner: The Tattooed Soldier
Previous matchups, from round one:
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
Lost Souls Region: