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Down These Mean Streets, '90s Style : Views of L.A. from the bottom of the social order : ANGRY NIGHTS, By Larry Fondation (Fiction Collective Two/Illinoi s State University: $21.95, cloth, $10.95 paper; 100 pp.) : THE BURNING, By Frank Norwood (The Dial Press: $21.95; 293 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Erin J. Aubry | Erin Aubry is a frequent contributor to The Times

Who says the L.A. riots were for naught? They seem to have spawned--perhaps resuscitated is more accurate--an urban noir genre that clearly has L.A. at its center. Literarily speaking, what could be more perfect? L.A., the end of the western continental line, the country's last stubborn frontier of dreams even as we enter the next century, implodes and falls slowly amid silent screams and gallant efforts to save glittery face.

Our history of urban strife is relatively recent, and the image of deprivation still hangs on L.A. poorly, like an ill-fitting suit. Bebe Moore Campbell fictionalized the growing contradictions recently in "Brothers and Sisters," but quickly fell prey to the very shallowness she sought to explore. In two new works, Larry Fondation's "Angry Nights" and Frank Norwood's "The Burning," the writers return Los Angeles to its Raymond Chandler, pulp-fiction roots and view the city from the very bottom of the social order. It is there, in dark alleys and burned-out buildings, that both works discover a terrible beauty and wring from it a depth, elegance and poetry that is often startling because it is incidental, an unexpected byproduct of physical and spiritual impoverishment.

But it is also that strength that lapses into excess at times and renders L.A. a garish picture culled straight from the pages of X-Men or some such comic book; there's too much mayhem, too much choreographed violence for anyone to relate to except, say, John Woo or Sam Peckinpah. At moments like these, you can practically hear a moody soundtrack swell, hear the sharp click of heels on rain-drenched asphalt as characters unwittingly head to yet another disaster. And suddenly you're uncertain whether this is drama or simply high style: L.A. in one more undefinable setting, pulling a vanishing act. Foiled again.

"Angry Nights" is the more elusive of the two books, a series of cinematic vignettes. This is a work about the pathologies that attend living in places by default, not choice; the result, according to Fondation, is violence. characters plot murders, shoot up, have primal sex that is more rape than an expression of emotional need. The landscape--Norwalk, South Central and other long-forsaken corners of the city--is an unsettled stomach that vomits up disillusion. The young inhabitants of this world--Maria, Frankie, Poz and other appropriately multicultural sorts--do not speak so much as confirm fears; they are as terse as this 100-page work.

There is barely enough continuity in "Angry Nights' " collection of fleeting looks to compel the reader or leave a lasting impression. The art is clear, the life less so. I was often too aware of Fondation's hand; the parameters of his ravaged world seem too carefully drawn. The whole frustration of living poor in L.A. is that the have-nots can clearly see what they are missing--the beaches, the uninterrupted spreads of bougainvillea--but here there is no such sense. One character named Paul (a refreshingly lucid sort) does recall excursions to the rose garden at the Huntington Library, but none of the others seem as exposed, or perhaps we have glimpsed too little of them.

"Angry Nights' " long suit is language; stretched taut to a bare minimum of descriptives, it shimmers with a real heat, though it also sometimes suffers from Dragnet-style artifice ("He did not have a mustache. His shirt was not blue." Ouch.). An obviously skilled writer, Fondation needed to trust the horror a little more and rely less on writerly conceits to convey it.

Frank Norwood utilizes a fair number of conceits himself in "The Burning," but emerges far more of a traditional storyteller than Fondation. Like Fondation, Norwood works in Los Angeles and knows it well, a fact reflected in his work, though the city is never actually named. And like "Angry Nights," "The Burning" weaves together various tableaux and individual tales of grief and loss. But here the fabric is denser, more sweeping, spinning its emotional heft page by page. The story revisits the 1992 riots in a one-day-in-the-life-of-the-inner-city fashion, delving into the lives of its inhabitants, the police, those living warily outside the ghetto, which suddenly mushrooms to gigantic proportions--all in a mere 24 hours.

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