This collection of writings about or set in Los Angeles --essays, short stories and novel excerpts-- from 78 different authors spanned a timeframe from Helen Hunt Jacksons Echoes in the City of the Angels written in 1883, to a 1997 selection from film writer David Thomson called Beneath Mulholland. The wide variety of formats, styles, subject matter, and attitudes toward this crazy place I call home, taken together, painted a much broader and more nuanced, realistic picture of the region than any one book or stories could possibly do, allowing for the truths behind the prevalent popular myths but also digging beyond the stereotypes. Many of the book excerpts were from full-length works that I had already read: novels such as Nathaniel Wests Day of the Locust, essays from Joan Didions Slouching Toward Bethlehem; nonfiction Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Mike Davis City of Quartz, and Harris Newmarks diary 60 Years in Southern California, 1853-1913. The most glaring single absence among male writers was Steve Erickson, brilliant contemporary film critic and author of several novels, two of which I have read and loved passionately. But most shocking is the omission of Eve Babitz, whom I think of as the ultimate L.A. Woman of the 1970s, a woman who gets Los Angeles as well as anyone ever has. The over-the-top boosterism and rampant real estate speculation in Los Angeles in the late 19th century and early 20th are described to comic effect in Steward Edwards Whites novel The Rules of the Game, where, Ulin says in an introductory blurb, everything is bigger, stranger and endlessly promoted . On a more positive, optimistic and appreciative note, Vechal Lindsays chapter California and America, from The Art of the Moving Picture describes the new medium of the movies as a new language and, from the vantage point of 1915, speculates that it is possible for Los Angeles to lay hold of the motion picture as our national text-book in Art. There are the usual send-ups of Hollywood, the movie industry, and stereotypical types populating that world, but not as many as youd think in a book this size. In addition to Brecht, Isherwood and Huxley, David Hockney wrote about his arrival in Los Angeles (with an amusing anecdote about how he learned to drive). The black, Latino and Filipino experiences are all represented in various pieces, with stories about the damaging racism thats always been prevalent here and its reverberating effects, including Carey McWilliams account of the Zoot Suit riots and Sleepy Lagoon murder trials of the early 1940s that victimized Latin youth.
So I started feeling kind of sad that not enough contemporary fiction is set in a real Los Angeles where people live and job and shop and eat and meet and do stuff; the most recent book I can think of off the top of my head is Mona Simpson's My Hollywood which, based on my negative reactions to T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain and Kathryn Stockett's execrable The Help I'm a bit nervous to read.
Of particular interest were those essays which purported to explain the unique kind of kookiness that we Los Angelenos take for granted, and which baffle outsiders who witness out lifestyles for the first time. Some of the fictional offerings, while a welcome change from the essays and non-fiction excerpts, do not seem LA-specific per se, but they universally manage to present some aspect of the "essence" that is uniquely Angeleno. Here, you will find musings from insiders who were working during the pinnacle of classic Hollywood, reflections from law enforcement personnel and excerpts from local noir crime fiction, historical suppositions and personal remembrances, all of it related to Los Angeles in some manner.
I bought this book to serve as a source of inspiration for my writing since the project I've been working on for the last 9 years takes place in Los Angeles.
David Ulin, book critic, and former book editor of the Los Angeles Times, and a New York transplant like myself, must have come to understand as well as come to terms with this side of the country by putting this extraordinary compilation of works together.
Ulin is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times.