There is a long and noble tradition of misanthropy in American literature. The shadowy, ill-starred sibling of our much-celebrated sunny individualism, it forks into two close but distinct strains. The first’s disdain for humankind, already evident in the later Melville and blooming more fully in Ambrose Bierce and the aging Twain, is tempered by and founded in love, a twisted and disappointed love, but love nonetheless. The second, a dark and wavy line stretching from Poe to Burroughs and onward, offers no such shelter from despair, only a stark apocalyptic nihilism without comfort or reprieve.
So the contempt for humankind bubbling from the pages of T. Coraghessan Boyle‘s latest novel, A Friend of the Earth, is not without precedent. But there is little love in Boyle’s work — except for the glowing cleverness of his own prose — and not a jot of Burroughsian stoicism. His misanthropy finds its place in a third and bastard strain, born not of love or despair, but of self-indulgent crankiness.
The ”friend“ named by the title (which, like much of Boyle‘s writing, ought to be read as an ironic wink) is 75-year-old Ty Tierwater, a onetime eco-warrior and renegade saboteur for an Earth First–like environmental group (Earth Forever!) who, by the year 2025, has become the embittered caretaker of an aging rock star’s collection of unlovable endangered species: a hyena, lions, wart hogs, vultures. Alternating chapters jump between the environmentally threatened past, California and Oregon in the 1990s, and the present, an environmentally ravaged Santa Ynez (just north of Boyle‘s Santa Barbara), where the rain hasn’t stopped in months and the residents are regularly decapitated by roofing material torn off by gusting wind. ”People thought the collapse of the biosphere would be the end of everything, but that‘s not it at all. It’s just the opposite — more of everything, more sun, water, wind, dust, mud.“ North Carolina is a tropical beach resort, the Sierras are a treeless waste, dengue fever has crossed the Rio Grande, and Bertelsmann West is ”the biggest — the only — publishing house in New York.“
Ty‘s ex-wife Andrea, who roused him long ago from suburban complacency into a life of eco-radicalism, shows up in Santa Ynez with murky intentions. She claims to want Ty back, and wants to re-form Earth Forever! with money squeezed from Ty’s employer, or with profits from a planned book about Ty‘s martyred tree-sitting daughter. Her return is the impetus for Ty’s strolls down memory lane to the days when he ”thought things mattered, believed in the power of individuals to influence events, illuminate issues, effect change, resuscitate the earth.“
But it‘s hard to be convinced that Ty ever held such beliefs. (Boyle certainly does not; those words sprawl across the page like a sneer.) Even at the height of his activism, he repeatedly owns up to the stupidity and inefficacy of his actions, which range from cementing his, Andrea’s and his daughter‘s feet and ankles into a logging road, to pouring sand in the crankcases of timber-company trucks, to razing 35,000 acres of non-native trees. Despite his self-righteousness, the young Ty time and again admits that his acts are motivated more by petty rages and a lust for action than by social conscience. Boyle further mocks, with his usual sharpness and wit, the wine-and-cheese ways of more-reformist environmental types, and heaps mountains of scorn on the remainder of ”the pullulating masses of our own degraded species“ who are, believe it or not, still less enlightened than our heroes.
All altruism is suspect, all action futile. The world goes to shit, and we’re all just saps no matter what we do. Such misanthropy would be palatable if it had any integrity, if it were not couched in Boyle‘s untiring slapstick cuteness. But that cuteness robs his work of all conviction, to the point that no one will be surprised by the cheap thrills of its Disney-happy ending, in which the forests miraculously renew themselves, ”the shoots of the new trees rising up out of the graveyard of the old.“
Doesn’t anyone get angry anymore? Tod Goldberg‘s first novel, Fake Liar Cheat, begins promisingly, with a clipped, snappily noirish narrative voice, a James M. Cain femme-fatale plotline torqued for satiric effect, an underlying critique of corporate and consumerist values and celebrity culture. But it explodes all too quickly into cartoon proportions, losing whatever bite it might have had in a morass of goofball glibness.
Goldberg’s protagonist, Lonnie Milton, is a 28-year-old ”up-and-coming young star“ at a temp placement agency in Century City; his ambitions don‘t go much further than decorating his living room with IKEA couches — until the bewitching Claire falls into his life. She invites him to dinner at a chichi Melrose restaurant with the mysterious directive ”Don’t valet.“
All becomes clear when, after consuming more than $700 worth of fine food and wine, they skip out on the check. Before long, they‘re running out on tabs all around town. The glamour and excitement of the con is just beginning to rub off on Lonnie when he learns Claire has set him up to take the fall for a murder. Meanwhile, copycat restaurant bandits are springing up everywhere, dressing in tuxedos and a evening gowns and leaving IHOP without paying. Cops search all cars entering and leaving fancy restaurants, and the newspapers accuse Lonnie of leading a cult, dubbed Lonnie’s Army, of check-runner-outers. Lonnie, in the meantime, has been sufficiently shaken out of his worker-drone coma that he is able to dispense such gems of wisdom as ”He should find something he really loves doing and then he should do it.“
The loopiness of Goldberg‘s satire would be more bearable were it not for its facile cynicism. On the run from the cops, his so-called followers blocking the freeway with torched school buses, Lonnie lets loose a line that could easily come from the mouth of a T.C. Boyle character: ”Like any of us can be saved.“
Look no further than the very last page of Fake Liar Cheat for explanation: ”Brought to you by MTV Books.“
For all the hundreds of books on this city’s film industry, little ink has been spilled on its literary history. There are chapters here and there by Mike Davis or Kevin Starr, monographs on a particular writer or genre or period, but not much by the way of comprehensive history. David Fine, a professor at Cal State Long Beach, seeks to fill that gap with Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction. His task is neither easy nor fashionable. Despite the fact that L.A.‘s literary tradition barely stretches back a century, there’s plenty to be cataloged and plenty that will inevitably be overlooked or neglected. And his broad approach flies in the face of the sort of micro-criticism in vogue in most academic lit departments.
Fine storms ahead, packaging familiar genres (the Hollywood novel, the hard-boiled crime story, the Angeleno apocalypse), sifting through recurring metaphors, and overarching themes, wrapping it all more or less neatly into a single comprehensive narrative. The result is unapologetically old-fashioned, but eminently readable. Fine describes a regional literature notably defined not by a sense of place, but by ”the migrant writers‘ sense of removal, of displacement.“
Southern Californian fiction had been written by outsiders since at least the 1880s, when Helen Hunt Jackson penned Ramona, but Fine delays L.A.’s birth as a literary city until the 1920s, when the booster vision of the city that Jackson helped to create had collapsed. Henceforth, fiction about the city battled L.A.‘s founding myths, recounting ”tales told of migrant hopes dashed against the shore in a glaring sunlight,“ countering its self-understanding as a historyless land of the fresh start with reminders that ”The past has a way of catching up and hanging on.“
Tracing the development of these themes from Cain and Chandler, West and Waugh, to Mosley and Ellroy, Pynchon and Didion, Fine lingers over some works while racing past others. One might wish for deeper analysis, sharper criticism, greater discernment. A novelist as original as Kem Nunn shares a page with one as schlocky as Robert Crais; Fine’s section on James Ellroy contains more biographical detail than textual criticism; Eastside writers Oscar Acosta and Ron Arias are summarily lumped together with outcast romantics John Fante and Charles Bukowski as exceptions to the literary norm. Despite its blind spots, however, Imagining Los Angeles provides a thoughtful, well-crafted overview, inspired by an obvious passion for its subject.
Fine can thus be forgiven for stumbling into booster mode himself, asserting that ”Los Angeles has emerged as a major 20th-century literary center, arguably the late-20th-century American literary city.“ The Industry‘s shadow still looms too large; despite a handful of fine writers, we’re not there yet. Here‘s hoping that when the long-delayed apocalypse at last arrives, and there’s no more power to make the cameras and projectors run, at least some of the energy devoted to the image returns to the word, scribbled in the desert sand or scratched onto tablets of crumbling stucco.