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Pilgrim in a desert land

Where We Are Now Notes From Los Angeles D.J. Waldie Angel City Press: 206 pp., $16.95 paper

June 27, 2004|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a professor of history at USC and state librarian emeritus, is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003."

In essayist D.J. Waldie, the Plains of Id have found a voice. The Plains of Id: That is what Reyner Banham called the suburbanized flatlands of Los Angeles County in his classic 1971 study, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies," as if to suggest this region was a vast and submerged steppe, brooding and inchoate, subconscious in its knowledge of itself, resentful of the more glittery possibilities of the upscale communities aligning its borders. And so did the Plains of Id remain largely drive-through country until 1996, when Waldie's "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" appeared; instantly, the Plains of Id gained dignity, and Waldie -- an obscure civil servant living alone in the Lakewood home his parents had bought a half-century ago -- made his debut as a writer of pithy grace, compassion and insight.

Interestingly, the intelligentsia of the regions surrounding the Plains of Id -- they might be called the Plains of Glitz, even the Plains of Ego -- recognized Waldie's talent and welcomed his debut. At long last, here was someone to speak for the successors to the Folks who migrated to Los Angeles from the Midwest in the 1920s: the ordinary people who flocked to the Southland following World War II and for whom the Plains of Plenty -- which is to say, agricultural Los Angeles County -- were asphalted and covered in suburban and semi-suburban development after 1945.

And so Waldie -- a 50-ish bachelor without a driver's license, bespectacled and with a slight stoop as befitting a nearly anonymous civil servant, reserved in manner, sometimes awkwardly shy, modest in his habits and expectations, a practicing Roman Catholic -- was thrust overnight into the forefront of Los Angeles pundits. His latest book, "Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles" (the title echoes Anthony Trollope's 1875 novel "The Way We Live Now"), gathers the best instances of Waldie's writing for such publications as L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles magazine, Salon, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Together, these lapidary essays, laconic to the point of being telegraphic, are a valuable commentary on the City of Angels spanning the last decade.

No writer is the same person on the printed page as he or she is in life. The achievement of voice on the part of a writer -- voice emanating from a literary persona -- is a deliberate but mysterious process. Drawing upon conscious, subconscious and intuitive elements, writers construct identities for themselves -- masques they might be called, in reference to ancient drama -- and these identities, in turn, operating between the writer and the chaos of reality, allow a writer to pick, choose, organize, evaluate and find the right words. And so the voice -- the Masque -- of these essays represents a semi-stylized projection on the part of a writer who is also struggling, personally, existentially, with the meaning of it all, to include his own conditioning by family, place, culture and history.

In "Holy Land," Waldie tapped into his Roman Catholicism to achieve a sacramental imagination that allowed him to find in the ostensibly banal and repetitive suburb of Lakewood a mise-en-scene of faith, struggle, despair and redemption equal to the most privileged and complex of environments. His city, as his carefully constructed literary persona presented it, was in effect a "Divine Comedy" of heaven, hell and purgatory, in which ordinary people, for better or worse, encountered the great issues of life.

Of his own seemingly isolated life he writes in "Where We Are Now": "If hell is other people, if Sartre's despairing anti-hero was right, then that's where all of us are, and there's no exit from it. Our only redemption is in making up the lack we encounter in each other, in the pilgrims we unwillingly welcome to the desert island of ourselves."

In these essays, Waldie lifts his eyes up from the Plains of Id and addresses the larger Los Angeles. His perspective, he tells us, is that of a semi-outsider, but the distinction is moot. Los Angeles has long since come to mean more than the city, or even the county. Except for San Diego, Orange County with its recently emergent civic culture and the privileged resort coastal region of Ventura and Santa Barbara, all the plains between the mountains and the sea are Los Angeles.

Waldie writes in an idiomatic yet incantatory style, with a certain back music ever present in his prose. "The greening of the Los Angeles River," he writes, "is a sobering demonstration of the limits of environmental restoration in an urban landscape. But, it's also a hopeful demonstration of how a perilously fragmented Los Angeles can pull itself together. In the prophetic words of the old hymn, we shall gather at the river, because we have almost nowhere else to go in built-out L.A."

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