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Mad About L.A. : At a time when we all seem to want out, author Peter Theroux finds plenty of reasons to stay. We 'have one of the more peaceful and optimistic mixtures of cultures that you will ever see.'


Each year of L.A.'s dramatic new troubles--and endless round of Armageddon and Armageddon-outta-here--made me more determined to stay. I decided to weigh in, not as an accidental tourist, but as something of an accidental resident. --Peter Theroux in "Translating L.A."


Peter Theroux fell in love with Los Angeles the moment he arrived, and what was there not to love?

He was visiting--or rather decompressing--from almost five years in Saudi Arabia. It was November, 1984. The Olympics had just ended, and here were green lawns and flowers, homes and mountain views, ocean breezes and one particularly memorable dinner with friends at Lucy's El Adobe.

Now almost 10 years later, he has penned his love affair to the city.

"Translating L.A.: A Tour of the Rainbow City" (Norton, 1994) is a wry, offhanded homage. Not since Randy Newman wrote his happy adulation has the City of Angels enjoyed such unapologetic praise.

Theroux, 38, lives in Signal Hill, works in Long Beach and keeps close ties to the Middle East working as a writer and a translator.

He speaks six dialects of Arabic.

Los Angeles is close enough to--and far enough from--the Middle East to suit this transplanted Bostonian, younger brother of adventure writer and novelist Paul Theroux, just fine.

Loving Los Angeles does not come easily. This is, after all, a city notorious for police brutality, senseless crime, filthy air, earthquakes, fires and floods. But Theroux looks at these problems from the perspective of having lived in the Middle East, a world almost "feudal" in its class system.

"The more negative people are about L.A.," he says, "the less they tend to know about the world. It isn't that the problems here should go unexamined, but we should realize that we are living in a fairly civilized setting."

It is a perspective that many are unwilling to concede. When asked by Theroux's publisher for a cover blurb, writer ("City of Quartz") and activist Mike Davis responded: "Properly shredded, I think the book would make excellent cat litter." The New York Times, while praising Theroux, referred to his investigation of the city as a "surface treatment."

Theroux makes no apologies. He admires Los Angeles with curiosity and a sense of humor.

Written as a series of tours, "Translating L.A." has a distinctly worldly point of view. Its chapters present lively explorations of the valleys, beaches, inner city and hinterlands without preconception.

The results are both serendipitous and surprising.

In Beverly Hills, he happens upon a Lebanese woman speaking French to her baby, who is crying for juice in Arabic. At Forest Lawn, he pauses to consider three Rastafarians photographing the sarcophagus of Liberace. In Santa Monica, he talks with a homeless woman hawking abandoned screenplays from a shopping cart.

The rainbow in the subtitle refers not so much to the city's varied ethnic palette as to a route ending in a pot of gold. At a time when everyone seems to be finding reasons to leave, Theroux finds plenty of reasons to stay.

"He's 100% right," says historian Kevin Starr. Now working in Sacramento as official state librarian, Starr tries to get back to Los Angeles every two weeks just "to place my hands on this dynamo."

"Why would one like London under Queen Elizabeth I?" he asks. "Or Jerusalem under Solomon, New York in the 1930s or San Francisco in the 1890s? You feel that Los Angeles is a city in the stages of reaching a defining moment for itself."

Another veteran observer of the city agrees. "I love it," says Warren Olney, host of the radio program "Which Way, L.A.?"

"L.A. provides me with a sense of hope for the future." If we can get it together here, Olney believes, then maybe the species will not self-destruct--a comment that is even more significant considering one of his recent interviews.

When Olney asked Shimon Peres if there existed a model that the Israelis and Palestinians might consider in their peace accord, the Israeli foreign minister immediately cited Los Angeles, commenting on the tolerance that Angelenos seem to exercise so easily.


The point is not lost on Theroux.

Something miraculous happens when people arrive in the city. Hostilities and antagonisms don't seem to last, he says. While Angelenos are often criticized for being rootless, it is precisely this rootlessness that washes hatred and resentment clean. In comparison, Theroux looks at other places in the world--Bosnia or Rwanda, for instance--where people pay a terrible price for their deep roots.

Whether attending the Watts Tower Festival, riding Metrolink with sightseeing Koreans, or teaching literacy skills to a Vietnamese woman, Theroux appreciates Los Angeles as a multicultural environment without loading the issue with a self-conscious dose of political correctness.

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