Now, before I have my say about David L. Ulin’s new compendium of writing on Los Angeles, there are just a few things that need to be said about my own “Hollywood years,” because I get tired of being asked about that episode by nosy people who are just plain confused about the facts.  So get this: I never knew Ava Gardner at all in Hollywood.  I knew Miss Gardner later on, in Madrid and London, and all I want to say in answer to so many inquiries—and this is the last time I intend to address the matter—is that she was no kind of cook.  And I will even go so far as to say that neither was she a woman of any notable intellectual attainment, so let’s just leave it at that.  Besides, though Ulin’s anthology does bring back some memories, it is not oriented toward Hollywood alone.

This special anthology parallels the 1998 volume Writing New York, also published by the Library of America.  Vertical New York and horizontal Los Angeles, despite their manifold differences, have some things in common besides having inspired or provoked so much writing and even literature, and one of them is that they are places of the mind.  We think of these cities as made of the words we know them by and of the attitudes they represent.  And we know them also by the still and moving images they have produced.  Writing Los Angeles leaves little to be desired as a gathering of writings about the mythical and all-too-real city or mega sprawl to which it is devoted.  Yet that little is not negligible.

The main thing to be said about the book, however, is that it is, for the most part, a ripping good read.  Though it is long, immersion demonstrates that it is not too long.  Dr. Johnson once said that no one ever wished Paradise Lost longer than it is (he forgot to ask me), but I think that many readers will actually be sorry when they run out of these West Coast pages.  If your daddy takes the T-Bird away, can we indeed still have fun, fun, fun?  Yes, yes, yes, by reading about three fourths of this anthology again.

Carey McWilliams and Mike Davis have probably written the most brilliantly about the history and development of Los Angeles in all its relentless rapacity.  James M. Cain and John Gregory Dunne have probably written the best appreciations of the atmosphere and distinction of the place, or places.  H.L. Mencken is necessary on the subject of Aimee Semple McPherson, as is Edmund Wilson—who writes with surprising flash—on the Rev. Bob Shuler.  In a much more contemporary vein, Pico Iyer’s essay on the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is a superb CAT scan of the postmodern transnational world that is rapidly coalescing.

I noticed, too, another group or category of writing that is a rather particular refraction of sensibility.  Ross Macdonald, in an excerpt from The Barbarous Coast; Joan Didion, in two of four essays; Robert Towne, in his “Preface and Postscript to Chinatown”; Walter Mosley, in an excerpt from Devil in a Blue Dress; James Ellroy, in an account of police procedures; and David Thomson, in a superb essay, “Beneath Mulholland,” all show signs, in these pieces and in other works, of the distinct influence of Raymond Chandler—of his presence in their minds.  And I noted as well that the School of Chandler is preceded by his own representation in this volume, “Red Wind.”  This story, Chandler’s best, is the right choice for showing him at a limited length and with the correct 1938 text.  Although Writing Los Angeles contains fiction by such worthies as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Waugh, and others, Chandler’s is actually the best example of fiction in this volume as well as the most influential.  As of this writing, the Santa Ana winds continue to dehydrate Los Angeles; and so Chandler’s acute reification of the word atmosphere still stands as a vivid evocation of a particular place.  And it still stands, in its allusions to the tradition that links “Red Wind” to Maugham’s “Mr. Know-All,” and Henry James’ “Paste” to the ultimate source in De Maupassant’s La parure, as an accomplished synthesis of the high and low cultures of reading and writing, and as yet another take on Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” as well.  Or we can put this another way: When Joan Didion writes of her residence in Malibu that “I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it,” our admiration for the snap of her sentence jogs our memories of Chandlerism.  For example, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead” (The Big Sleep, 1939).

Of course, there are other ways to “write Los Angeles” besides the School of Chandler.  Tom Wolfe, in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” seemed to have invented the New Journalism at a stroke.  And Jules Siegel, in his study of Brian Wilson, “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” is hardly less effective.  Salka Viertel has incisively described the L.A. that was a center for distinguished European refugees in the 1940’s, and Reyner Banham is the authority on the sometimes outrageous architecture of the City of Angels.

There is nothing wrong with Writing Los Angeles that is not wrong with any anthology, though this is the only one that made me miss Ben Hogan and the statue of him at the Riviera Country Club, and Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, too.  Come to think of it, I could have also used something on Charles Manson by Vincent Bugliosi, and another on O.J. Simpson, not to mention more riot coverage.  As it is, however, this book radiates energy and is a showcase of writing designed for informativeness, for enjoyment, and even for serious study.


[Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, by David L. Ulin (New York: The Library of America) 880 pp., $40.00]