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Jack Smith

Welcome to L.A., that uninhabitable Sodom sinking : under the heavy weight of a shower of God's grace

March 24, 1985|JACK SMITH

Los Angeles is almost always depicted in novels as uninhabitable except by perverts, sadistic cops and runaway children.

It is described as a junkyard of vulgar architecture; a haven for crackpots; a sinkhole with no past and no future; a Sodom where exploitation is the only occupation.

It is said to be permanently covered with a layer of air so foul that one cannot see the sun, and to breathe it is to cough and weep.

Usually the principals of such novels come from other cities--Boston, New York, Philadelphia--and are brought here only by the vicissitudes of the story, since it is axiomatic that evil leads inexorably to Los Angeles.

In "Special Circumstances," Benjamin O'Malley, an NYU law school graduate, comes to Los Angeles to work for one of our most powerful and prestigious law firms.

Brian Lysaght, the author, has him arriving on a normal day: "O'Malley's DC-10 seemed to buckle when it hit the brown lid, then slid through it like a spoon through pudding. Once under the chocolate top the plane entered a whiteout of horizon-to-horizon haze. At about 500 feet it was possible to make out some surface features, primarily vast tracts of undifferentiated single-family houses sometimes relieved by a few blocks of tall buildings, always crisscrossed by wide, linear, 50-mile boulevards and highways. This is already different from the dream, O'Malley thought as he followed the four hundred fellow New Yorkers gasping and weeping to the baggage line. . . ."

Welcome to Los Angeles.

O'Malley stays in Los Angeles a year or two, until he is driven out by its malevolence and corruption and greed, and author Lysaght never lets him have a nice day--the kind we've been having all this winter.

O'Malley is quickly disillusioned, too, about our beaches. "The travel brochures show the lovely waves crashing on hundreds of miles of broad, free public beaches. Pretty young bodies, healthy and strong, lie on the sand twelve months a year. But the millions have already fouled the waves. In one year in the 1970s five Santa Monica lifeguards contracted leukemia."

I don't believe there has ever been any medical evidence that leukemia can be contracted from crowds or polluted water. If so, it must be epidemic at Coney Island.

He does have a kind word, however, for the Bonaventure Hotel--"an immense, penta-cylindrical hotel done entirely in concrete and mirrored glass with a one-acre, six-inch-deep lake on the first floor. It had all the warmth of the German battery positions at Calais. O'Malley loved it. L.A. architecture should not pretend to good taste. . . ."

Later, on a trip to San Francisco, O'Malley neatly defines the difference between architecture in the two cities: "The cab let him off at the Embarcadero Hyatt, a truly grotesque structure designed by the same madman who did the Bonaventure. But what fits well in L.A. is an insult to San Francisco. One simply does not wear plaid pants to formal affairs."

Gerald Petievich writes pretty good thrillers ("To Die in Beverly Hills") with a pretty good eye for the Los Angeles scene; but sometimes, even as you and I, he seems to get his streets mixed up.

In "To Live and Die in L.A.," he has a cop cruising "down Sunset Boulevard through a commercial district consisting of sex shops, porno theaters and stores which sold magic tricks and masks, leather goods and lingerie. The sidewalks were crowded with the usual mixture of teen-age hookers and runaways, men wearing tight trousers and tennis shoes and forlorn-looking tourists. As he neared the gaudy pseudo-Oriental facade of Grauman's Chinese Theater. . . ."

That sounds to me more like Hollywood Boulevard than Sunset, especially with the Chinese Theater on it.

Elsewhere he writes: "Vukovich steered off the Pasadena Freeway and drove east on Colorado Boulevard through the suburban Highland Park business area. . . ."

There is no way you can turn off the Pasadena Freeway onto Colorado Boulevard. In Pasadena the freeway ends, becoming Arroyo Parkway, which intersects Colorado Boulevard. If you turn east on Colorado, you go through downtown Pasadena. Highland Park is eight miles to the southwest of here.

Oh, well, I once wrote that I had turned north on Colorado from Orange Grove.

To my surprise, though, I find Los Angeles virtually eulogized by John Rechy in "Bodies and Souls," his exuberantly bawdy novel of sexual discovery, disenchantment, exploitation and burnout in a soulless Hollywood.

Rechy describes with a forgiving love the tacky and shabby scenes of his terrain, as well as its irrepressible natural beauty.

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