Photo by Debra DiPaolo
L.A. HAS BEEN CALLED MANY THINGS BY MANY PEOPLE — BIG, messy, centerless, the ugliest city on Earth, the biggest hick town in all the hick land. That it is a bleached-out, sprawling whore of a metropolis, where a single street can stretch for over 70 miles (that would be Sepulveda), can't really be denied. Founded by bunco artists and faddists, rubes and hucksters, with vulgar tastes and bottomless greed, it survives by means of stolen water, two-bit dreams, and an arterial system of byways that cater to its first love, the automobile.
The clichés about L.A. have always been framed by what it is not. It is not a place where one can walk, making it somehow not a “real” city, meaning it isn't Paris or Rome or San Francisco. Neither is it “cultured” or “sophisticated.” But mostly what it is not is New York: It is the perennial opposite, the Dionysian and reckless West rather than the Anglo-European, staid East. So where does all this hostility come from, these rancorous winds that seem to forever blow in our direction? What, in defense of itself, can L.A. say on its own behalf? And is a defense even required any longer?
A good place to find answers to these questions is Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, published this week by the Library of America and edited by David L. Ulin (a Weekly contributor). Here, in some 90 essays, stories and poems, are to be found the thoughts of a variety of writers whose reflections on the City of Angels span more than a hundred years.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the fact that a good number of the writers included in the mix — such as Edmund Wilson, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe — never really lived here but rather checked in just long enough to try to pin the place in a few thousand words. The title might lead you to think otherwise. But L.A. being what it is, that is to say the flawed golden land, emblematic of America's “extravagant myths of private gratification and self-realization,” to quote Reyner Banham, it has, of course, inspired many outside writers to have a poke at it.
The collection, like the city itself, is rife with ups and downs, and many of the usual suspects turn up, plying their favorite themes. Budd Schulberg nails the Hollywood crowd, while James Ellroy does the cops, Evelyn Waugh covers death, and Tom Wolfe, the car culture. Sometimes things overlap to the point of redundancy — Schulberg and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, whose stories of lecherous Hollywood producers stalking would-be starlets strike a remarkably similar note. Still, this is a sumptuous feast of a book, well-edited and -presented by Ulin.
The opening essays, from the turn of the last century, by Helen Hunt Jackson, Mary Austin, Stewart Edward White and Vachel Lindsay, lay the foundation, bringing what now seems like rather old news of a city built on those phony myths with the developers and motion-picture industry to blame — also swamis, yogis, preachers, love cults, food faddists and body freaks, in short all the quacks and opportunists who made the words Los Angeles synonymous with hype and greed. These are not facile observations, just familiar ones. It takes the more vigorous writing of Louis Adamic, Aldous Huxley and, especially, Edmund Wilson to begin to up the ante.
Of all the essays in Writing Los Angeles, none feels fresher or more replete with mental acuity and elegant writing than Wilson's “The City of Our Lady the Queen of Angels,” a brilliant account of the Reverend Bob Shuler, who, from the pulpit of his Trinity Methodist South Church, ran his smear campaigns against public figures he didn't agree with, thus prefiguring the Moral Majority of our own age. First published in 1931, it's as hip as a jazz riff. Here's a passage on the city's churches: “Many cheery little odd-boxes, god-boxes, offer you a thousand assorted faiths . . . from Theophistry to Christian Sirens” and the “Buddha-like roguey old yogi,” who sits in a garden with his devotees “while pink clematis or purple clitoris rises or droops in rhythm to the movement of the mystic's fingers.” Clematis and clitoris? Now there's a festive little pairing.
The 1930s are revealed to be a vigorous time for literature in L.A., starting with James M. Cain's essay “Paradise,” published in 1933 in The American Mercury. L.A. was “always about selling climate,” Cain noted: The question was what to do when you got here and were faced with what he called the “dreadful vacuity.” It's a theme that Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and John Fante all elaborated on. That The Big Sleep, Day of the Locust and Ask the Dust — three of the best novels ever written about L.A. — were all published in 1939 makes one think some very fine literary winds must have been blowing that year. Chandler's story “Red Wind” is a pivotal piece. It's so damned good you don't want it to end. You wish it could be the whole book.
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, got L.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 is Red Water.