Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading L.A.: Five Views

FIVE BOOKS that firmly affix themselves to my brain as "Los Angeles."

Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West
When I first read this in college I filed it away as a cynical view of early Hollywood, a jaundiced, unhappy take on Singin' in the Rain-era Tinseltown. But the more I read about Los Angeles during the 20s and 30s the more this book becomes thinly veiled history. Not the prettiest picture of LA, but a cautionary tale that regularly gets revised and renewed with each crime of excess that lands in the national spotlight. Unfair and true to LA all at once.

The Grifters by Jim Thompson
I don't think any list of LA books can avoid some noir fiction, but where my initial thoughts were to go to Raymond Chandler -- a master writer, genre or no -- I couldn't shake off Jim Thompson. Though not as firmly anchored in the LA landscape, his characters all read like typical Angelenos; transplants from somewhere else with big dreams and bigger problems. It was pulp fiction, dime novel stuff characters in Raymond Chandler novels would buy at train stations to read and throw away when they were done, but it's pulp with Greek tragedy at its core.

Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument... by Charles Bukowski
Though Buke wrote plenty of semi-autobiographical fiction set in LA -- Ham on Rye, Post Office -- this collection of late 70s poems was the first I read, the first book of poetry I bought when I was in high school. The poems read like character vignettes, glimpses of scenes caught in passing while driving through the less glamorous neighborhoods with the windows up. For every successful person living their dreams in LA there are a dozen whose numbers never came up. Bukowski is witness and champion to the forgotten.

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
Native Angeleno Block gives us a portrait of her Shangri-LA as seen through the eyes of teen outsider Weetzie. This ground-breaking Young Adult novel, which I discovered after having spent some time away from LA, joyously goes about sprinkling glitter over Hollywood and environs in a way that made me realize how little I knew my home town. I read this once a decade, and I'm overdue for my fix of slinkster-coolness.

Chinatown a screenplay by Robert Towne
This may seem like a cheat, but in many ways this is the quintessential LA book. Those who study the craft of writing for films consider this to be the perfect screenplay in terms of pacing and storytelling, and Towne presents tell the social history of irrigating LA with water taken from the Owens Valley through the conventions of a film noir detective story. Ignoring everything else, Towne shines a light of dozens of LA-area locales -- Mulholland Drive, Silver Lake, Catalina, La Brea Tar Pits, San Pedro, Santa Monica -- recognizing that LA is an interconnected city of neighborhoods, pearls strung by rivers of concrete.

-- David Elzey

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