WE BEGIN WITH THE PALMS, TOWering imperiously over Beverly Drive, lazily looping MacArthur Park, silently swaying to the beat of Pasadena's Rose Parade as frigid Easterners look on enviously.
We begin with the palms because they so often do, the storytellers who bottle the essence of Southern California, spraying its seductive mist on the rest of the world.
Like its chaotic citizenry, most of Southern California's palms are recent transplants, squatters on the natural flora. They give no food or shade, they just punctuate the skyline. Yet fiction has transformed them into the symbol of this urban desert--of its promise for escape, for new beginnings, for winter sunshine and acquired beauty and easy wealth. In L.A. literature, the palms were once as crisp and alluring as a David Hockney painting. Palm trees and pools. Sex and glamour and a dash of mystery. A Hollywood set, to be sure, but one that felt authentic because the palm trees in the backdrop were real.
Somehow, it seemed fitting that in the lootings and fires that crushed this city's already waning confidence, palm trees were torched. When the smoke finally cleared, a local official reported that most of the damaged palms would survive. "You can burn almost the whole tree and it still grows back," he said in a metaphor of hope for the entire city.
After the self-deluding highs of the '80s, hope has run short. The best fiction writers, with their innate ability to pierce through the clutter of everyday life, have been capturing that anguished pessimism in story, often flashing warning signs well before the recession and last year's uprisings. And, like their predecessors, these chroniclers of contemporary life in Southern California often begin with the palms.
But in the latest round of L.A. fiction, the trees have lost their sheen; they are dirty, ragged, tired. "For more than a century, they have pushed themselves up into the sun and in the end, frail and deformed, utterly debased, found nothing," Kate Braverman writes in "Palm Latitudes." Braverman's Latina heroine finds cynical comfort in the destruction left by the Santa Ana winds, "the stillness in the mornings . . . after the winds have ripped the palms, made confetti of the pale listless fronds, dragged their anemic sun-drained fronds to the ground. Then the city has been purified. The calligraphy is obvious. . . . God is saying the party is over."
In this year's "Chimney Rock," Charlie Smith's Los Angeles reeks of decay. So do the trees. "The palm trees and the eucalyptus trees and the paloverde bushes beside the little Mexican urban rancheros were dusty, and the pale linen and chrome buildings were dusty. . . . The trees lining the street, the junipers and the jacarandas, were eaten along the bottoms, the crowns of the date palms picketing the median looked exhausted above their shabby gray skirts. The green world is dying everywhere, but out here in the desert, death has its own quality."
Yet the green world is not entirely dead. Patios are still fragrant with the scent of orange blossoms by day and jasmine by night. The same ocean breeze takes the edge off the sun and sends musty spices blowing in off the canyons. But the talk has turned sour, not just over smog and traffic and overcrowding. Now it's carjackings and shootings and fortunes lost in real estate. It is real, and it is not. It doesn't matter. What matters in this image-crazed land is what we choose to see when we look in the mirror, and right now that mirror is cracked.
WE BEGIN WITH THE PALMS, AND THEN WE MOVE ON. TO DISCOVER WHAT the writers of the golden land's mythology are saying about its present and future, this story surveys five years of literature based in L.A., broadly defined here as Southern California. The focus is on fiction with a distinctly regional flavor, stories that would lose their identity if set against any other backdrop.
One purpose of this exercise may be to heed the warnings of these visionaries--about the drift, the detachment from community, the chaos so often simmering underneath the surface lives we live. At the same time, though, it is fair to question whether any body of work has successfully captured what "Among the Dead" author Michael Tolkin calls the "mundane truths" of Southern California life, the everyday pains and stories hidden beneath the dramas that sell.