When one thinks of “Los Angeles,” the first thing that comes to mind, other than maybe our weather and our traffic, is Hollywood: movie stars, red carpets and the mystique of glitzy lifestyles. But Los Angeles, of course, has a lot of more underneath the surface, and one area in particular happens to be our rich history of literature. Lit, you say? Like in books? Yes, books. Incredible books. We may be a city synonymous with movies and television, but as any avid reader will agree, L.A. has made an indelible mark on literature. This city has attracted and produced a wealth of remarkable writers for the same reason it gave rise to some of the best punk bands — wherever you find glamour, you’ll find the dejected. If there’s a shiny surface, there’s also an undertow. Writing — at least lyrical, gritty, honest writing — comes from that undertow.
So, what makes the Los Angeles voice unique? What differentiates our writers from those hailing from more traditional, European cities like New York or Chicago? Our lack of history, for one. This is still a relatively new town. Then there’s the dreamlike landscape, the endless concrete blocks that stretch for miles, from the Valley to the coast. Add the business of Hollywood to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a blank canvas begging for some scribbling. Still, there’s something else at work in with words about or set in L.A. — an undercurrent of madness and an elusive, spectral bearing. Existentialism is a day-to-day reality in this town. You can feel it everywhere you go. As a result, the classic Angeleno character — both real and fictional — tends to be alone, embedded in his or her own soul, disoriented, but always searching for something greater.
L.A.’s literary scene has also historically resembled punk rock in how it invaded the world’s consciousness. Bukowski, Fante, Ellroy, Didion, Easton Ellis, Mosley, all L.A.-based, all outsiders who forced people to look at the place others call Tinseltown in a new way. Likewise, punk rock was a voice of the streets, a platform for proletarian storytelling. L.A. continues to crank out some of the most subversive and interesting writers of both nonfiction and fiction, especially in the last few decades. In this list of L.A.’s best contemporary authors and their seminal works, you will not find a Raymond Chandler or Charles Bukowski. You’ve already read those lists. These are L.A.’s newer voices, voices that have made an impact the last 30 years or so, who, like their much admired predecessors, were born and bred in the undertows and dark shadows, tending to look from outward in, in everything memoirs to noirs. Of course, lists of this kind are always incomplete in some way; this is by no means definitive, but anyone who has read the following should be able to agree, these books evoke this town in their own unique ways. If you haven’t read some of them, add them to your essential reading list now.
Wonder Valley (Ivy Pochoda, 2017)
On a typical sunbaked morning in Los Angeles, gridlocked on the 110, a disgruntled man gets out of his car, strips naked and sprints down the highway, weaving between cars with drugged consternation: “He holds a straight line through the morning’s small desperations, the problems waiting to unfold, the desire to be elsewhere…” And with this freak occurrence, we are plunged into the lives of six characters, all of whom are peripherally affected by this stranger’s breakdown. Pochoda’s searing novel about interconnectivity and coincidence in L.A. takes us through its barren, labyrinthian landscapes. From a cultish commune in Joshua Tree to Skid Row and finally to the upper crust in Hollywood Hills, Pochoda interweaves her protagonists’ lives in a complex, non-linear structure. Her characters are conflicted, feverish, but determined to solve the mystery of their own undoing. Wonder Valley is a transcendent, rugged story about empathy, hard times and the need to escape our own lives.
Things That Happened Before The Earthquake (Chiara Barzini, 2017)
It’s 1992, a few weeks after the L.A. riots and a couple years before the Northridge earthquake, when Eugenia and her family move from Italy to the barren streets of the San Fernando Valley in Things That Happened, a genuine existentialist coming-of-age novel. But don’t expect bland contrivances in this portrait of a girl’s loss of innocence set against a city’s slow demise. Barzini’s writing is restrained and ethereal, knowing that life in Los Angeles can be both surreal and capricious at the same time. “The sunlight diluted into a thick polluted haze and I knew home was somewhere behind those freeways.” Barzini also hits all the right notes in describing the San Fernando Valley’s strange, arid existence. From the endless liquor stores and nondescript curio shops to the graffiti-strewn boulevards, we follow Eugenia as she quickly embeds herself into this outlaw landscape. Attending Van Nuys High, Eugenia dates a gang member, befriends a lonely soul in Chris and becomes entranced by Delva, who takes her back to her mystical, but maladjusted home in Topanga Canyon. Things start to take shape for our protagonist, until the 1994 earthquake rocks the city and her newly evolved persona to its core.
Sick City (Tony O’Neill, 2013)
Where are all the downtrodden junkie writers of yore? Did they die and leave us with teen vampires, superheroes and millennial bloggers? Not to worry. There is hope. Enter the deranged universe of Tony O’Neill. This former junkie and keyboard player for The Brian Jonestown Massacre cleaned up, moved to Los Angeles and proved to be the voice for the disenfranchised. Sick City is an intravenous shot into L.A.’s motel rooms, derelict houses and dingy streets, filled with drug addicts, pushers, pimps and overall human vermin. Depressing, right? Not even a little bit. The gutter is O’Neill’s funhouse. Where else would you read about a psychotic meth-head who tortures his victims to Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”? Or two pathetic junkies trying to pawn a sex tape of a deceased celebrity just to get another hit? Just check out guitarist Slash’s endorsement: “A disturbingly twisted ride through Hollywood’s underbelly with a degenerate cast of colorfully interwoven characters.” Slash sells it right, too.
Dead Boys (Richard Lange, 2007)
Lange gave the noir genre a much-needed kick in the pants with the hard-boiled stories of Dead Boys. Stark realism and inured style harkens back to writers like Jim Thompson and Newton Thornburg here, and like these rebels of the genre, Lange ripped noir from the hands of the pretty politicians and detectives and put it back on the streets, with the criminals. We’re talking schemers, low-rent bank robbers and desperate mavericks, all of whom make horrible decisions and end up paying dearly. Lange describes Los Angeles with a frightening authenticity. From Echo Park to the deep valley, he creates a sun-bleached, concrete stage for his players to reach their bottom, and occasionally find redemption.
In the Not Quite Dark (Dana Johnson, 2016)
These tightly wound, esoteric tales about womanhood, race and our inability to connect with each other have a stark quality that’s hard to shake. Most of Johnson’s tales are set in downtown Los Angeles, where rampant gentrification has created a nostalgia for the past and as well as an unremitting dread for the present. As an African-American and L.A. native (and an associate professor of English at USC), Johnson’s approach to race is so acute and textured, you’ll think about her characters’ nuances for days. This is especially apparent in “The Liberace Museum,” where a young interracial couple, Charlotte and Heath, drive cross country to visit his parents in Mississippi. Although Heath’s parents seem pleasant, when the father boasts that his family owned their land for 150 years, Charlotte can’t help but recoil: “Charlotte had watched fireflies flicker in the darkness and between the trees like small, distant torches… She wondered if the slave quarters used to be out there, among the fireflies.” For Johnson, ghosts aren’t merely monsters here to haunt us, but signifiers, reminding us of an elusive past.
West of Sunset (Stewart O’Nan, 2015)
OK, I’m cheating a little. Stewart O’ Nan, who has written nearly 20 novels and attends Red Sox games with Stephen King, is not an L.A. writer. He hails from Pittsburg. Still, West of Sunset, his reimagining of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic demise, is such a spectral rumination of Hollywood’s extreme highs and lows, I think it’ll be considered a classic one day. As you might know, Fitzgerald spent his last few years in Los Angeles as a failed screenwriter before his untimely death at 44 from alcoholism. Having moved here with a hopeful contract with MGM, the famed novelist of The Great Gatsby quickly realized that Hollywood could be a deadly compromise. He also discovered that in order to survive in this town, you must reinvent yourself, or die trying. O’ Nan describes 1930s Los Angeles with such an embroiling air of romanticism, you understand its temptation, even as Fitzgerald reaches for that second act.
Dead Stars (Bruce Wagner, (2012)
The best way to eviscerate Hollywood is from the inside out. At least that’s how novelist Bruce Wagner has approached Hollywood and its absurdist celebrity culture. Taking cues from satirical novelist Nathaniel West (The Day of the Locust), Wagner has made a career out of dissecting Hollywood’s dark side, until there’s nothing left but bloody scraps. His novels are outrageous, disgusting, most definitely offensive and filled with pitiful, desperate souls, willing to do anything to have their faces plastered on the big screen. If they’re already famous, their trajectories are more debauched. Wagner’s style is whimsical and grotesque (he makes Bret Easton Ellis look tame), but if you’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough, you’ll realize there’s a moral compass in his stories. Dead Stars, one of his nastiest, features celebrity appearances, self-amelioration, drugs aplenty and psychotic breakdowns, all of which feel like jolts from the electric chair. Who said something about killing what you love? Well, Wagner loves Hollywood, and he massacres it.
Permanent Midnight (Jerry Stahl, 1995)
During the ’80s Jerry Stahl was a successful television writer, penning episodes of Moonlighting, Twin Peaks, and yes, ALF. He made upwards to five grand a week. The problem was he supported a heroin habit that matched his earnings. He lived in the Hollywood Hills, but each night he ventured to the seediest parts of the city to score from hardcore drug dealers. In the morning, he injected speedballs so he could go jogging and make it through mundane story meetings. Stahl was out of control, and he crashed — hard. Permanent Midnight is not only a confession, but it’s pure L.A — the meetings with studio execs, the double life, the price of fame. Since its publication, Permanent Midnight has transcended the memoir genre to become part of the pantheon of books like Junkie or Requiem for a Dream. Oh yeah, and it’s funny as hell.
The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir (James Brown, 2011)
Writer James Brown’s account of his turbulent childhood, substance abuse and life as a struggling writer is as guileless and real as they come. Los Angeles looms large in this memoir, taking on different personas as Brown’s story shifts from innocence to experience. His upbringing with a mentally unstable mother is fascinating. Later, his brother makes it as an actor, starring in a few pretty big films, before succumbing to his own demons. His sister follows a similar road. Then there’s Brown himself, struggling to get his novels optioned, constantly being told by the Hollywood machine they’re too dark, as he battles an escalating addiction.
More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk (John Doe and Tom DeSavia, 2019)
Beginning where their last book Under the Big Black Sun left off, Doe and DeSavia continue the tale of the infamous L.A. punk scene. Far from just merely an addendum however, there is a method to the authors’ madness in this follow-up. While Big Black Sun focused on the advent of punk rock in the City of Angels, More Fun in the New World is both a dark meditation on the scene’s demise and a demonstration of how punk created a platform for other artistic endeavors. As a result, More Fun not only includes essays by musicians who planted the seeds of punk, such as John Doe, Billy Zoom, Mike Ness and Jane Wiedlin, to name a few, but also includes pieces by artists directly inspired by the punk ethos, such as actor Tim Robbins, artist Shepard Fairey, director Allison Anders and skater/entrepreneur Tony Hawk. More Fun opens up the punk narrative, demonstrating that punk wasn’t merely a club with a few members, but an intellectual and artistic manifestation which altered the American psyche as we know it.
What distinguishes Doe and DeSavia’s books from others regarding L.A.’s punk history are the breadth and passion of their contributors’ essays. These are personal stories, not merely quips and quotes spread throughout the pages. More Fun is also darker than its predecessor (as if that were possible), since this time we’re delving into punk’s eventual demise. The Go-Go’s Charlotte Caffey’s essay about her battle with heroin and eventual sobriety in “Deliverance” is as sincere and brutal as they come. And Louie Perez of Los Lobos paints a refreshingly different portrait of the scene, detailing how punks embraced his band’s Mexican roots music, giving them the confidence and wherewithal to continue exploring different styles, even today. Collectively, these essays come together to create a compelling testament to an important moment in time when the kids fought back.
Book cover images courtesy of the following publishers: Ecco (Wonder Valley), Doubleday Books (Things That Happened Before the Earthquake), Harper Perennial (Sick City), William Morrow/Counterpoint LLC (Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir), Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company (Dead Boys), Counterpoint (In the Not Quite Dark), Viking/Penguin (West of Sunset), Blue Rider Press/Plume (Dead Stars), Process (Permanent Midnight), DeCapo/Hachette (More Fun in the New World).