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Mike Davis makes a mammoth shift

The iconoclastic chronicler of Southern California goes on an Arctic adventure in his first kids book.

March 03, 2004|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Imagine for a moment that by a sheer act of will the flimsy line between fact and story, life and literature could be cut and sent floating in a gossamer cloud through the dimensions. Now imagine a 7-year-old boy under the covers in Fontana in 1953, reading "My Eskimo Year" by Paul Victor (the first explorer to winter over with the Greenlanders and become part of an Inuit family).

Mike Davis has sort of grown up now and teaches urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. He's spent his entire life strung out on that line between the fiction and adventure of his youth and the facts that form the basis of his work. In the last 15 years, he has written such books as "City of Quartz," "The Ecology of Fear," "Magical Urbanism" and, most recently, "Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See" -- books that are taught, cataloged and generally relied upon for any critical understanding of life in Southern California.

These days, there's another side to Davis emerging in print: the little boy reading about explorers in the far north. His new book, "Land of the Lost Mammoths," is a science-adventure tale for children. It seems somewhere between "The Ecology of Fear" and "Under the Perfect Sun," Davis began writing under the covers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Mike Davis -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about urban theorist Mike Davis incorrectly said he works at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Davis teaches at UC Irvine. The article also incorrectly said he has a 6-year-old son. That child is actually his ex-wife's son.

Actually, the book is not that big a stretch. While critics have focused on Davis' noir approach to urban theory and history -- his tendency to look at disaster as the formative force of change -- there's long been a hint of that adventurous twinkle of his childhood. Consider the chapter in "The Ecology of Fear" titled "Maneaters of the Sierra Madre," an essay on the wild animals Angelenos fear most, from mountain lions to goat-sucking vampires.

There's a bit of the iconoclast, a dangerous spark that Davis, whose life has included meat cutting, truck driving and serious political activism, seems to ignite in his readers. He wants adventure, in life and in literature and in urban theory. He likes his readers on the brink.

"Land of the Lost Mammoths" (Perceval Press), which published this winter, has that familiar, delicious childhood feel to it: Think Jules Verne; think "Journey to the Center of the Earth," think Georges Melies' 1902 film "Le Voyage Dans La Lune."

"The North has been in my mind since I was a child," says Davis on a balmy winter evening before a reading in Santa Monica, accompanied by his adult daughter. It is the hour when the black palm trees are their most dramatic against the Southern California sunset. "While other kids were thinking about fights and stewardesses, I became obsessed with Greenland."

Also gnawing at him was a terrible longing for his children Jack, 11, and Conor, 6, who have spent much of their childhoods in Ireland with his ex-wife. It was a yearning so strong that Davis, in casual conversation, mentions it about four times in as many minutes. "I missed my son so much," he says, as his daughter, Roisin, 22, who works as a model in Los Angeles, reaches a hand across the table toward him.

Using the $315,000 proceeds from a 1998 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant (with no strings attached), Davis decided to hunt down his dreams. He traveled to Newfoundland, New Zealand, Italy, the Arab island of Socotra, Iceland, Thailand and many other places ("especially places with volcanoes," he grins). "The grant allowed me to see the places that have been in my mind for so long."

And in August 2000, it allowed him to scoop up Jack, who was then 7, and visit Greenland. There are 800 people in the town of Tasiilaq, where they stayed. Their hotel looked down on the school soccer field where Inuit kids play under the midnight sun. Three thousand sled dogs rattled the northern night with their incessant howling.

The experience left its mark on the pair. Davis carries with him pictures of Greenland and remembers his travels in vivid detail: the expressions on his son's face, the light under a plane's wing, an island in the center of a lake. Jack discovered a spirit bolder than either of them knew he possessed.

Once home, they knew they had to share their tale of Greenland, about how they "climbed mountains, chased icebergs along the shore, and met polar bear hunters returning from places still marked 'unexplored' on official maps," Davis writes in the opening chapter of the book. His young heroes -- Jack, Conor and Julia, a girl modeled on a close family friend of the same name -- "came across a man singing to a dead whale. Several times they discovered stone circles that were the ancient footprints of houses from an Arctic dreamtime before Europeans, when Greenlanders thought that they lived alone on an ice planet."

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