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 Angles 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 Silverlake 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 which dates back to 1877. As I wrote this, another great storm season appeared to be forming. I was telling someone about one hundred year storms. I saw 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 in the base of the Santa Clarita River that year, which then was looking like the Mississippi. They have since built townhouses in that same riverbed. Either the responsible planning authority is that 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 thought I was in monsoon. Then an incredible deluge, and thunder and lightening flashed awesomely and the roof literally rocked from the sound and fury. Yeah, that is the truest revelation about Los Angeles. It truly 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 apocalypse 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 outline 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 crash fatalities, charred bodies from crashed airplanes, and the like I've seen in my years as a police reporter.
Anyway, the realization that survived from the eighties to the New Millennium is that this is the city of apocalypse. That fact is reflected in its literature, and that is the L.A. imprint on literature.
All of the four great literary works of the last century that Los Angeles had a hand in were works of apocalyptical vision. They had been written during the Depression and the Second World War, and were thoroughly Los Angeles productions. The four works are also quite dissimilar. Doctor Faustus, Mann's novel of gloom and doom, was inspired not only by what was going on in his homeland, but also by the proximity in L.A. of Schoenberg, the granddaddy of avant-garde music.
Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano owed a lot to Los Angeles, even or especially because he hated the place. To go on with these four horsemen of the apocalypse, Nathanael West wrote The Day of the Locust about actual people and places of Hollywood in the thirties. Toward the end of World War II, a countryman of Lowry's, Aldous Huxley, wrote the ultimate apocalyptical vision of Los Angeles in his novel, Ape & Essence.
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 here at the turn of the century. In his classic work called 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 War, "Los Angeles in legend became paradise west' to Negroes still languishing in 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 came 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 tradition 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 is.
True, since the second world war, the beat scene has come and gone. And there seems to have been no more Mark Twains anywhere in the nation, on the west or east coasts. And Los Angeles has had its share of phonies and pretenders -- Joan Didion was a high class one; Steve Erickson a low rent pretender.
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, whose stuff 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 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.
She is ever the optimist and I am ever the literary grouch.
This is an extract from "Literary L.A.," which has just been released in an enlarged third edition.