Cambridge CompanionI’ve just finished this marvelous collection of essays.  I heard about it after I googled “John Harris,” the well-known Los Angeles poet who is now unfortunately suffering from dementia and confined to his home and even bedridden. His name appears in a list of search results, one of them a passage from this book. When I saw the title, I knew I had to read more about the city/county/mini-country I’ve been living in for twenty years. Yeah, twenty years! I arrived from Barcelona in September, 1995, just three years after the riots (called here the Justice Riots), as the whole world was awaiting a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, in a time before cellphones and email, when a few cool youngsters had pagers.

I was shocked to learn that the first printing press didn’t come to Los Angeles until the 1830s. I was surprised to learn LA is the twelfth largest metropolitan area in the world. After reading this volume cover to cover, I feel a new kinship with and curiosity about my adopted city.

Names and titles that keep coming up: Joan Didion, James M. Cain, The Day of the Locust, Raymond Chandler, the novel Ramona, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I have read some of Didion’s essays, but until now the other items on this list were either unfamiliar to me or barely familiar and not much more. Since the first printing press didn’t arrive until the 1830s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis here is very 20th century. Not much happened before that, at least not much that has lasted. I enjoyed the discussion of the Californios, in one of the book’s early essays. I learned about Daniel Venegas’s novel Las aventuras de don Chipote o Cuando los pericos mamen, “a picaresque novel published by a Los Angeles newspaper, El Heraldo de Mexico, in 1928. Here for the first time we find the term chicano in print to refer to working-class mexicanos in the United States.” It’s a novel about the exploitation of the working class—published by a Spanish-language paper, in 1928! I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to read it, but it sounds fascinating, as does the story collection Cuentos californianos by Adolfo Carrillo. Who reads this now but a few scattered scholars?  And yet these books must open contemporary readers’ minds to a now distant and forgotten part of California history. I’m sure we’re not expecting to get something as groundbreaking and exciting as Cien años de soledad, but these books are of historical and sociological interest, at the very least.

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (from the 1960s)—a novel I have read, but a long time ago—gets a detailed analysis. A passage is quoted, about “minority LA” harking back to “the tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties, still convalescing from the depression, with no money to spare for fresh coats of paint . . . Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful.”  Russell Berman goes on to say, “For Isherwood this romantic poverty provides an alternative to the antiseptic modernization that he sees devastating the city.” The romantic poverty of LA? Not a point of view that one hears much about anymore, but if one looks at it in historical context, it’s intriguing: after all, A Single Man was written some fifty years ago by a British expat.

Los Angeles as the new Eden, the city of the future!—or, conversely, the city that exemplifies more than any other the decadence of America in the 20th and 21st centuries and the failures of the capitalist system. Los Angeles should be celebrated for turning its back on the old models of urban planning like New York and Paris!—or, conversely, LA as a chaotic, nightmarish mess, the graveyard of the American Dream, a monster noisily dying from an overdose of greed and hedonism. This sort of binary can be found throughout the book.

Though he is alive and well and not old, I hadn’t heard about poet Sesshu Foster until now. Here is an excerpt from one of his prose poems:

Los Angeles is my city, I sucked on her neck, gave her purple hickeys before she backhanded me out of a car at 35 MPH on a turn in Highland Park. From a street corner, all the Chinese signs in Alhambra declare her love. Korean signs of Koreatown are just another word for feelings. Beautiful hair of Vietnamese noodles. Wonderful smile of oranges sold at East LA on-ramps. Big bottles of pigs’ feet & giant kosher dills on the counter at every corner store . . . Babies, shot in the head, not knowing how to love, how to write their names. They cry too much. Their parents cry too much in churches.

Stunning, gritty, a heady bouquet scent of LA life—I need to read more by Sesshu Foster.

The only weak link in this informative and inspiring book is Bill Mohr’s “Scenes and Movements in Southern California Poetry.” He doesn’t go very deep, the way most of the other essays do. More than any other piece of writing here, his work feels like a hastily complied survey and collection of names. Take this sentence:

By the final decade of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first, one could assemble a tantalizing anthology comprised only of university-affiliated poets: Gail Wronsky, Tim Steele, Ralph Angel, David St. John, Steven Yenser, Sarah Maclay, Cecilia Woloch, Harryette Mullen, B.H. Fairchild, Christopher Buckley, Dorothy Barresi, the late Dick Barnes, Robert Mezey, Molly Bendall, Patty Seyburn, Carol Muske-Dukes, Robert Peters, James McMichael.

Instead of pointing out trends, how poets incorporate the region’s dreams and nightmares into their work, instead of any hint of poetry in this writing about poetry, all we have is this dismal list. And where is Judith Hall?!? She’s in Malibu, she commutes to Cal Tech, she won a Pushcart Prize, she’s lived here for years. What was Mohr’s agenda? I only know him, by the way, as a “historian” of the LA poetry scene; presumably he’s written some actual poetry as well? Let’s hope it’s better than his prose. Anyway, he has nothing about the long era(s) before World War II. He almost completely leaves out Latino poetry.

On the whole this is a great book for anyone wishing to know more about a fascinating and no doubt neglected subject. Interestingly, on the cover of this book we see a photograph of the Malibu fire of the late 1970s: fire in the background, shadowy figures moving along the beach in the foreground. Riots, conflagrations, earthquakes, freeways, hucksters, smog,  greed, Manson!—but also the sea, the mountains, endless palm trees and pools, the sand, the sound of Mexican Spanish and Vietnamese and Chinese and much more, the smells from the taco truck and the Thai eateries of Thai Town: that’s the terrific aftertaste I have from this book. Now I need to dive into Mildred Pierce—I mean the book (like everyone else I know the film); I want to explore Adorno’s thoughts on SoCal; I want to see what happens in Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain; I want to lose myself in Chandler. The chapter about film has also opened up doors. Maybe I’ll sit back, click on Netflix, and relax with Terminator 2, which till now I’d never even thought to watch. Writes Mark Shiel, “While the film was most remarked upon for its pioneering computer-generated imagery and its budget of over $100 million, it arguably derives more meaning from the real city it maps out, through a shopping mall and suburban streets in Sherman Oaks, along storm drains and freeways, out into the desert, and back for a showdown in a Fontana steel mill.” The strip malls, gangs, parking lots, the emphatic rawness of hip-hop, the guns, the dying palms, the millions, the Hollywood freeway at 3 a.m., the mansions, the faint weird trickle of the so-called LA River, the drought, the drought!, the coyotes prowling through the suburbs of night, the millions . . .

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  1. Thank you, Alex. I appreciated your review–well written, informative, a good read. You introduced me to the essays and convinced me to read the collection. Nice work. Hilda

    • I know you will enjoy the book, Hilda. For us it’s a really important book; for me it changed the way I view the city we live in. And somehow the “academic” style (even though very different from my own) added a weightiness and gravitas to the whole enterprise–as if the thing were written in Latin with Roman numerals!

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