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LOS ANGELES, CA, USA - It is now well into the New Millennium, and it's funny how little some basics have changed since I began a series of articles to examine Los Angeles and her great writers. That was about twenty years ago, and all around me Los Angeles was disintegrating into mud slides, rain and yet more rain. I was one of the lucky ones. The roof of my Silver Lake apartment had only sprung a minor leak.
That was one of the three or four great storms since they started keeping records on rainfall in downtown Los Angeles. The records date back to 1877. Not so long ago, I was telling someone about one hundred year storms. I experienced one in 1968 in the Saugus area, just north of the San Gabriel Mountains, which form the northern wall of the Los Angeles basin. Two big freeway bridges were wiped out at the base of the Santa Clarita River that year, which then was trying to look like the Mississippi. They have since built townhouses in that same riverbed. Either the responsible planning authority is truly venal or people really have no historical sense of the effects of weather and climate.
I remember in the eighties the view out the window was different. Normally I saw all of Hollywood, including the Griffith Park Observatory. But that night the rain was falling so hard I was thinking monsoon. Then an incredible deluge, thunder and lightning flashed awesomely, and the roof literally rocked from the sound and fury. Yeah, that is the truest revelation about Los Angeles: it is the city of apocalypse.
Then there's the Really Big One, the Great Earthquake that's always overdue. That night back in 1983, however, was the most memorable. I couldn't see the Hollywood I usually saw. Maybe the end was right around the corner, but at the moment the sound of the rain was nice. The lights of Hollywood had been turned into a diffused, rain-smeared image of warm, shimmering colors by the raindrops. The outlines of the city were visible, and -- yes -- they could have been on the set of a futuristic city before the apocalypse. Could such a place produce valid literature? Would it be around long enough to do so?
Suddenly, my reverie was broken. One of the lightning bolts hit only a few feet away. I saw, at close range, the cold, death-like glow from that lightning and it sobered me even more than had the sight of suicides, car accident fatalities, charred bodies from crashed airplanes, and the other victims I've seen in my years as a police reporter. At least four of the great literary works of the last century in which Los Angeles had a hand were works of apocalyptic vision. They had been written during the Depression and the Second World War, and were thoroughly Los Angeles productions.
Why, I wondered, had L.A. produced so much gloom and doom? Is it truly because it is the City of the Future?
In the post-war years the bohemians became part of history. They were replaced by the beatniks, who congregated in coffeehouses in Venice and in old L.A. neighborhoods like Echo Park. Yet interestingly enough, the thread that links the bohemians and the beats can be found in an area south of downtown called Watts.
One of the most important of the nation's black writers grew up in Watts at the turn of the century. In his classic work, Anyplace But Here, Arna Bontemps went back to his childhood memories of the sweetness as well as the problems of Watts. What he was doing was tracing the evolution of black ghettos and Watts became his archetypical "Mudtown" (his name for northern ghetto communities).
Bontemps originally was shipped to Watts by his father after his mother died in his native Louisiana. He grew up and went to school in Watts and worked at the post office at night. But after college he went to Harlem where he teamed up with Langston Hughes to help create the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties.
In Anyplace But Here, Bontemps wrote of Watts with great love. He wrote with special fondness of Jelly Roll Morton and his coterie of New Orleans jazz greats whose heyday was in Los Angeles during the thirties. Bontemps told of how, before the Second World War, "Los Angeles in legend became 'paradise west' to Negroes still languishing in the Egyptland of the South."
In a book of letters between Bontemps and Hughes, editor Charles H. Nicholas makes the point that these two writers grew out of the American tradition of Whitman and Twain. He goes on to say, "The beat writers owed even more than they acknowledge to writers like Hughes and Bontemps." Mentioning Kerouac and Norman Mailer, he contends that these writers even owed the world "beat" to black writers. "Beat is a word derived from the language of lower-class Negroes, meaning 'poor, down-and-out, dead-beat, on the bum, sad, sleeping in the subways,' " Nicholas declares.
Certainly by the fifties and sixties, one of the obvious features of L.A.'s burgeoning coffeehouse scene was the mixing of black and white, often through the medium of music. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller was the Bible of the disaffected who played chess and listened to jazz. But, after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the civil rights and anti-war protests became hand in glove and what had been a primarily spiritual and cultural protest became political.
Today, in New York, you will find many critics who have wrongly assumed that Los Angeles has no literary traditions to draw on, save those grafted onto it by Hollywood. This is because New York thinks it all has to happen in Gotham. The City of the Angels has had a full intellectual and literary life of distinctive merit and great potential. But it looks a bit tarnished -- or at least very seedy -- because that is what Los Angeles itself is.
True, since the Second World War, the beat scene has come and gone. And there seem to have been no more Mark Twains anywhere in the nation, on either coast.
Has Bukowski any competition as the great Los Angeles writer? Julia Stein mentions Joseph Hansen and Ross McDonald as good hard-boiled detective fiction in the Raymond Chandler tradition. She regards James Ellroy as a real writer, a master of the noir detective story who began being published in the eighties. She says Ellroy (she is particularly fond of his The Big Nowhere and The Black Dahlia) creates detective heroes who are as mad, possessed and obsessed as Poe's great detective Dupin and that he captures the L.A. streets all too well. She mentions the upsurge in multi-cultural writing, with such superb voices as Wanda Coleman, Kamau D'aaood and Garrett Hongo.
I tell her one of my favorite Los Angeles poets is Marcielle Brandler, who writes a wonderfully sensuous poetry that sometimes is also quite erotic. Marcielle is not one of Julie's favorites.
She is ever the optimist and I am ever the literary grouch.
I have thought long and hard about what in particular united all the disparate elements of California bohemianism. It is revealed in California literature, including that of San Francisco. What shows is the "pristine innocence of bohemia," later jaded by the apocalyptic strain in writing which Huxley and others introduced to the Southland. The decay and innocence -- that is the true L.A.
Despite the superficial cosmopolitan atmosphere Los Angeles was developing in the last decades of the last Millennium, don't imagine that authors -- and even the mortal-merely-mortal residents -- haven't perceived the rawness, the primitiveness of this place correctly. Time and place have been called disappearing characteristics of modern fiction in America for decades now but in Los Angeles time and place are still the stars of our drama.
Perhaps time and place are ephemeral phenomena, in life and to a lesser degree in literature, maybe both are but writers' conceits, constructs or facile artifices. But the fact is that Los Angeles has put its garish mark on world literature with them.
Desert sun and fire, the multivarigate moods of nature and light, and artificial spotlights and glows have given the place its own special luminescence. Were it not for the sun there would be fewer fires, no doubt. Los Angeles is often consumed by primeval fires in its canyons, its mountains and flatlands -- fires that make hell seem a modest place after all. In Los Angeles, our primeval fires seem to come from the bowels of the earth.
If you really want to understand the way Los Angeles looks and feels, you have to understand the desert sun and the land, the heat and the fire and the colors, over which a thin veneer of civilization has been laid down. Go just the other side of the mountain pass out of the Los Angeles basin on Highway 5 to Newhall. This is the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains that form the Los Angeles basin. Its 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles mean that the old town of Newhall, now officially known as Santa Clarita, is only half an hour away by freeway. With its California Institute of the Arts, an arts university initially patterned after the Bauhaus, and Magic Mountain amusement park, and suburbs and malls and mini-malls, its riverbed and streambeds as well as its hillsides covered with condos and homes, Newhall seems far away from the bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard.
As recently as three decades ago, you could sit on a hillside in that town and feel you lived in a raw and primitive place. Back then, the area was still far from built up, so those who had lived there a while could still find a bluff above it all and watch the great red fires sweep out of its hilly canyons early every summer, and contemplate the buzzards and condors that circled the almost lunar desert landscape where you half expected dinosaurs to be roaming, and pterodactyls to be knifing through the air. Right there at the edge of the L.A. basin, you begin to understand -- to feel the rhythm of the fires in summer and the torrential rains, floods and even occasional snows in winter, and dread the inevitable punctuating earthquake. I think all of this contributes to the feeling that all L.A. is but a sound stage, even though we're not here talking about studio backlots.
Straight ahead to the north are the Tehachapi Mountains and northeast by hardly more than ten miles is the beginning of the Mojave Desert where giant rock structures have been dramatically uplifted by the earth's violent geology. It is tentative, primitive land in either direction -- and it's the same land that formed the Los Angeles basin that's now been covered over with the appurtenances of the city.
Consider that one of the ritziest-glitziest parts of Los Angeles's Wilshire Boulevard goes over a patch of ancient surface oil. They pulled a museum full of animal skeletons and bones out of the still percolating tar pits. And remember that the San Gabriel mountains that form the northern part of the basin near Newhall are also the beginning of condor territory, ancestral home of a nearly extinct, primitive bird.
Just how wild a land this is was driven home for me one day in the late sixties when I got a call early one morning. It happened that a huge Abyssinian hornbill -- a giant exotic bird out of another eon -- had escaped from the Los Angeles Zoo a few weeks before. "Abby's" misadventures around the Los Angeles basin were featured on all the front pages in town and on every television news show day after day. Everyone was cheering on the primitive bird, which was obviously looking for freedom, and was spotted in different precarious situations all around the basin. A good news source called me when I worked as a reporter at the Newhall Signal to tell me that a local father had been awakened early that morning by the sound of his son shooting off his rifle. It seems that Abby had finally found her way through the pass in the basin walls into Newhall and was flying north, because the rocky high desert landscape reminded her of the North African land she had come from. She stopped for only a second on a fence in Newhall and a kid looked out the window, saw Abby, and did what any red-blooded American boy would do. He shot and killed her. The embarrassed father asked me not to reveal the identity of Abby's killer.
By six o'clock that morning, the bird, with its 14-foot wingspan that looked almost like a pterodactyl, had been folded into my icebox. She stayed there while I wrote the story and then we called zoo officials to come and take her body and identify her. When the paper came out with the story, my exclusive in the Signal was widely noted on various television stations. But it was Abby's poor body, filling up the entire refrigerator that really gave me an intimate sense of the attraction that the land had had for her. Suddenly the primeval fires and lights were revealing their secrets to me.
In 1902, John C. Van Dyke wrote in The Desert that sunlight "falls fierce and hot as a rain of meteors ... It is the one supreme beauty to which all things pay allegiance" in Southern California.
In 1906, the then-young poet Robinson Jeffers sat on top of a hill in Los Angeles and watched the night descend, describing at the perimeter of his view "furnace fire lights" whose "rolling fierce shafts" pierced the black sky. Even when there aren't fires and floods, there is always something about the light, natural and artificial, combined with the desert sun and spontaneous fires that impart a maniac, primitive look to Los Angeles and environs.
Half a century ago, in his classic Southern California: An Island on the Land, Carey McWilliams insisted that the strange interplay of light and air in the desert by the sea is unique and different from that of the Mediterranean or even the tropics, which the L.A. climate most closely parallels. McWilliams noted that Los Angeles is bounded on one side by mountains and the other side by ocean, that it is a place where the sun and the air play odd little games with each other. This is no natural garden setting, such as Tennyson and Wordsworth wrote about. Where European and eastern American cities are carved out of gentle, old and worn hills and woods. L.A. is a different kind of American city -- this was never the Garden of Eden -- there's hardly a plant in the Los Angeles basin that wasn't imported and isn't kept alive by water imported from elsewhere. The land itself is almost an inert ingredient -- it's mostly the Mojave Desert sun and air suddenly full of ocean moisture that's unique, McWilliams insisted.
Both inside the basin walls and outside, the land is uneven, with jutting and often dramatically rocky geology, covered naturally with chaparral, sagebrush and scrub oaks. Sometimes, seen in plain light, the L.A. landscape becomes commonplace. But if you live in L.A. -- within the basin or just beyond it -- the memory of the fires and floods and the sunlight begins to work its magic. The longer you stay in L.A. the more the magic works because you always know how quickly the commonplace disappears.
You'll remember that Nathanael West's vision that inspired The Day of the Locust came from a terrible summer he spent in a Hollywood boarding house during the Depression when he was both ill and broke. The heat of the summer sun combining with the deadly red from the brush fires in the nearby Hollywood Hills colored his L.A. perceptions forever. The great fires that every summer burst out of the canyons -- in Newhall or in the Hollywood Hills -- are of the same type. They inspired West to his best work, and gave it its incredibly apocalyptic feeling. Throughout West's novel, his protagonist, a movie studio artist, is working at home on his masterpiece, "The Burning of Los Angeles." Explained West, "He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun. ... He wanted the city to have quite a gala air as it burned."
It's been suggested that -- like the desert atmosphere, which produces great, strange mirages -- L.A.'s air is like a giant movie lens that makes the place always seem bigger than life. Others have noted how fast the sun slips out of the hilly desert canyons as it sinks into the Pacific in imitation of a Klieg light being turned off.
In After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Aldous Huxley lends a nearly hallucinogenic quality to the light of Los Angeles by combining both of these effects. And this was before the landscape had driven him to LSD. Note this passage:"It was a winter day and early in the morning; but the sun shone brilliantly, the sky was without a cloud. The car was traveling westwards and the sunshine, slanting from behind them as they advanced, lit up each building, each sky sign and billboard as though with a spotlight, as though on purpose to show the new arrival all the sights."
Authors personalize the light. In What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg wrote that "the sun was taking its evening dipping, slipping down into the ocean inch by inch, like a fat woman, afraid of the water."
In the twenties, Upton Sinclair wrote his astonishingly Balzacian novel of some 500 pages called Oil!, which painted a sparse landscape that was, literally, floating on oil, oil that would propel the development of a city even more than its famed dream factories. In 1912, he had an oilman and his son racing across the Southern California landscape "no hat on Dad's head, because he believed that wind and sunshine kept your hair from falling out ...." Sinclair describes the scene as the car roars along at high speed:"A barrier of mountains lay across the road. Far off, they had been blue, with a canopy of fog on top; they lay in tumbled masses, one summit behind another, and more summits peeking over, fainter in color, and mysterious. You knew you had to go up there, and it was interesting to guess where a road might break in. As you came nearer, the great masses changed color -- bushes of a hundred shades. They were spotted with rocks, black, white, brown, or red; also with the pale flames of the yucca, a plant which reared a thick stem ten feet or more in the air, and covered it with small flowers in a huge mass, exactly the shape of a candle flame, but one that never flickered in the wind."A few miles further, Dad remarks, "If that sun doesn't get over the hill in three minutes, she's late." Sinclair also notes that in the West they tried to light up even the small towns with far more artificial light than back east. Sinclair insisted Western towns were different. "The width of the street, the newness of the stores, the shininess of their white paint, and the network of electric lights hung over the center of the street...."
In the early part of the twentieth century the basin must have had a pristine, tender quality as the orange orchards and bean fields were planted and the first roads and Red Car tracks were laid out. But that period lasted only a short time.
Raymond Chandler describes how, when he first got here in 1912, he found a world with year-round sun, hot and dry in the summer, with great tropical rains in the winter. By the time his hard-boiled prose in the Phili p Marlowe books matures, he is writing about the Depression and the pristine past as something as lost as the Garden of Eden. By the fifties, he sadly announced, the climate remained hot but had also become sticky and humid and befouled with smog. The sunshine had turned "as empty as a headwaiter's smile." But maybe what is the most memorable line from Chandler came when he immortalized our Santa Ana conditions, those terrible hot desert winds blowing through the valleys into the basin. "These are the times," said Chandler, "when meek wives look longingly at the backs of their husbands' necks and sharpen their kitchen knives."
By World War II, Huxley had descended into apocalypse for a literature that reflected the Southern California desert he was living in. The sun had set the stage for the apocalypse ever since. The great flashes of light from the nuclear bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were on his mind as he wrote, especially because Huxley was practically blind. Light became his obsession. He discovered the source of Los Angeles's unique light by living in the desert at Llano. Driving his car across the desert floor, he was able to make things out because the direct desert light and distinct shadows enabled him to see more, he believed.
Or take Doctor Faustus: the book is about the decline of Germany into total barbarism during World War II. The germ of the novel was said to have first come to Mann when he was vacationing in Palestrina, Italy, as a young man. For it was during Mann's Italian period that he developed his sense of his own German identity; he mistrusted the palm trees and blue skies in Italy because they were so un-German. No doubt Mann's subconscious was reawakened in California as he strolled in the pleasant green hills by the blue Pacific, the bright desert-sun lit air of the Pacific Palisades making him think of that early time on the Mediterranean, the palm trees and sun of Los Angeles merging his Italian memories with his forebodings about the land from which he was exiled.
In Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, which takes place in Mexico on the verge of World War II, the Consul is ultimately consumed by the fire of the volcano. Everything was ultimately consumed around Lowry !=- even the dead dog goes into the cabalistic furnace. Lowry wrote much of the manuscript while cooped up in a dingy Los Angeles hotel room.
Compare, finally, Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, the most "Los Angeles" of all detective heroes. What lives and breathes about Holmes is the same quality that lives and breathes about London even to this day -- it is a cosmopolitan international city, older and wiser than Los Angeles -- very rational and sophisticated with its pale Victorian sun. Holmes deduces, Marlowe reacts. What lives and breathes in Raymond Chandler's Marlowe is not his intellect but a sharpened sense of L.A.'s place and time, invariably cast in a continuum of fire and sun or of garish artificial light.
LIONEL ROLFE is the author of the forthcoming The Uncommon Fellowship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather. His books include Literary L.A. and The Fat Man on the Left. He is a frequent contributor to The World's Magazine.
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