If there was a bookshelf chiseled into the bluffs in Santa Monica, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, John Fante's Ask the Dust, Charles Bukowski's Post Office and Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays surely would be on it. These are the novels that define our city.
But some observers believe it's time to start talking about placing a newer book on that illustrious shelf — Joseph Mattson's Empty the Sun.
A gritty novel influenced by noir, Nathanael West and, yes, Fante, Empty the Sun
opens with the narrator driving down the Santa Monica Freeway, his
neighbor's body stashed in the trunk and a quart of whiskey shoved into
his crotch. Trying to flee the memory of his parents' death and the
knowledge that he's missing a finger (he was once a talented guitar
player), the narrator's back is against the wall. His only friend, who
stopped him from jumping off the First Street Bridge, is dead: That's
the body in the trunk. Topping off the whole shitshow, God — literally,
the Holy Ghost — shows him a vision of the apocalypse and his own
Empty the Sun fits the mold of classic L.A.
novels: There's psychological implosions, supernatural doom and a
wounded narrator trying to flee his past. The book features themes of
unrequited love and the search for identity and purpose, along with a
shotgun showdown with God. There are also blind, guitar-playing junkies,
pissed-off elephant seals and corrupt cops. Of course.
But in the
end, it's the voice Mattson has created that makes this book an instant
classic: Isolated but a part of the city, it's loud yet secretly
neurotic, and prone to moments of stunning lyricism.
“I guess the
classic L.A. novel,” Mattson says, “is a well-written book about exile
and isolation, bringing shadow to the fore, end days — for one or for
all — or at least dipping a foot in the apocalypse, personal or
otherwise, and letting the city speak for itself through all of the
sordid stigma attached to it.”
Although he's from southwest
Michigan, the 37-year-old Mattson's breakneck-speed prose, his previous
life as an employee of Book Soup and his role as editor of Girlvert: A Porno Memoir and meth-focused The Speed Chronicles make him seem as emblematic of his adopted city as the Sunset Strip or Skid Row.
He still feels like an outsider.
I still feel a bit on the edges, the fringe — almost there in some
regards,” Mattson says. “But maybe that's where I belong, where savage
and beautiful and interesting things happen.”
What Empty the Sun
and many classic L.A. novels nail is the fallout of the American dream.
“[It's] the underside not pictured on the postcard,” Mattson says.
“Characters whose darker truths pierce the façades projected onto the
land of dreams.”
When it comes to classic L.A. novels, author David L. Ulin, a former book editor of the Los Angeles Times,
says: “You have the myth of sunshine with the surfer/car culture,
driving-around-in-a-convertible kind of myth. And then the other side is
He explains: “You can come to Southern California to
reinvent yourself, to get away from your past, your demons, to re-create
your life. Maybe that works and you're in the sunshine, but if it
doesn't work, your back is against the wall. … So, what happens? Noir
In Empty the Sun, the narrator resides in the Amigo Hotel on the edge of downtown. It's a place that echoes the Alta Loma Hotel in Ask the Dust
— a building strangely isolated, teeming with desperate tenants
searching for oblivion. Mattson writes: “If dreams were once born in the
belly of that old building's former incarnation, then they sure as hell
went back there now to die.”
As in many classic L.A. novels,
Mattson brings the reader to a place that's almost completely the
opposite of the California dream, but he renders the gritty emotional
and physical landscape with authenticity and love.
“You get the
Hollywood dream myth, on the one hand, going back to the rest of the
country with the celebrity magazines and movie-star bullshit,” Ulin
says, “but on the other hand, you get this real place of desperation and
people who come here and are clinging on by their fingernails.”
Jerry Stahl, the novelist and screenwriter who wrote Permanent Midnight and I, Fatty, agrees.
or not,” he says, “L.A. is a place people come to be someone else, and
end up being exactly who they fucking are. External apocalypse is often a
pale — if horrific — reflection of the internal. And Mattson serves up a
serious, L.A.-style personal apocalypse.”
As for the canon of classic L.A. novels, Stahl says, “Joseph definitely deserves to make the cut.”
The achievement is all the more remarkable in that Empty the Sun
came into being without the backing of a major publishing house. A
Barnacle Book — a sister imprint of independent press Rare Bird Books,
which was created by former Book Soup publicist Tyson Cornell — brought
Mattson's vision into the world.
Mattson went with Barnacle over
traditional publishers in New York because he envisioned the novel being
accompanied by a soundtrack. The first edition, released in 2009, was a
paperback with a CD soundtrack by Six Organs of Admittance. It ran
1,000 copies, followed by a limited edition of 1,000 two-column,
oversized, slipcase books with a vinyl LP soundtrack. A third printing, in 2010, ran another 2,000 copies —
good numbers for a first-time novelist.
If a larger-than-life
personality is one criterion for anyone aspiring to the same title as
Raymond Chandler, Mattson meets that requirement, too. At a recent
reading, he walked up to the stage with a stack of his books under his
arm — and a bottle of Jameson's. But he's not all tough guy: He also
just became a first-time dad. “My brass balls work,” Mattson says.
now working on three new books — including a memoir about his mother's
murder. She was killed in May 2011, when Mattson's stepfather (her
fourth husband) pushed her so hard that she fell backward, hitting the
ground with such force that it caused a brain bleed, he says. Her
assailant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but then
sentenced to just two years in prison.
It wasn't Mattson's first
encounter with domestic violence. As a preteen, he recalls, he'd
witnessed a previous stepfather's abuse. One night, when the man fell
asleep, drunk, in front of the fireplace, 12-year-old Mattson duct-taped
him to a chair. The man awoke to find Mattson brandishing a shotgun and
a hot poker freshly stoked in the fireplace, warning him never to touch
his mother again.
Mattson's memoir-in-progress takes place in Michigan. But like Empty the Sun, it's dark enough to feel like an L.A. classic.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to the number of editions of Empty the Sun that have been published. The book has already had a third printing — not just two as we previously indicated. We regret the error.