Author Tod Goldberg. (Linda Woods )
I can still remember the first time I saw Los Angeles. It was December 1980, I was 9 years old, and the view came from the back seat of my older brother Lee's brown Chevette as we climbed up the Grapevine. My two sisters and I were crammed into the car along with all of Lee's earthly possessions — well, most of them, anyway, since the butterfly chair he had tied to the roof flew off somewhere near Kettleman City — which amounted to stacks of paperback books, three typewriters, every issue of Starlog that had been published to date and whatever pots and pans our mother could do without. In short, the essentials any college student would need for his first apartment, along with three younger siblings to help with the packing and schlepping.
For some reason, I imagined that as soon as we entered Los Angeles I would feel something perceptible, that it would be like entering the Emerald City, and that people would notice I was there. Look, they'd say, there's that 9-year-old we've been waiting for! It's strange when I think of it now since at the time I lived in the Bay Area and going into San Francisco was no big deal; it was just a city with taller buildings. But Los Angeles was something I'd seen on TV, and that meant something magical then.
"Here we are," my brother said.
"Where?" I asked.
"Los Angeles," he said. And he pointed to a sign that announced we were now in Los Angeles County. We were surrounded by mountains, the sky was gray with fog and the only thing magical was that somehow the Chevette was climbing the steep grade and not backsliding all the way to Coalinga.
"Where's the Hollywood sign?" I asked.
"Not all of Los Angeles is in Hollywood," he said then, and now, more than 30 years later, I think about that every time I try to write about the city. Because the truth is that Los Angeles is not a fixed point, either in literature or in real life, the tectonic plates beneath our feet a constant reminder that permanence isn't what it used to be, that in a million years Los Angeles will be in Alaska.
The books that have captured this notion the best — classics such as Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" or even Hector Tobar's recent "The Barbarian Nurseries" — have always placed their characters into a kind of gridlock where they are forced to look at the people on the fringes surrounding them and decide if, like in actual traffic, they'll be let in or cut off or maybe even killed just for trying to get ahead, even incrementally.
It's the threat of violence that has always made fiction about Los Angeles so fundamentally different than the raft of books about Manhattan: There always seems to be an undertone of menace. Perhaps it's a genetic marker left over from the great crime fiction that first rose out of Los Angeles, or perhaps it's that the citizens of Los Angeles have always understood that if reality can be manipulated, well, identity is nothing.
A place built on dreams invariably means it is filled with failures, and that's where true conflicts come from: People with nothing left to lose. You, of course, see this in modern crime fiction by writers like T. Jefferson Parker, but you also see it in the surrealist shimmers of life Aimee Bender creates, in the dirty realism of Richard Lange's beautiful losers, in Susan Straight's Inland Empire refugees, or in the desert noir nonfiction of Deanne Stillman, where man and animal fight nature for dominance.
And yet, trying to capture the disparate nature of Los Angeles on the page has often proved difficult because writers get lost trying to define things, to add specific borders — emotional and physical — to something that is inherently diffuse. Because Los Angeles exists outside of Los Angeles County. Los Angeles is also the manufactured country club world of Palm Springs, the false hope of the rotting yacht club at the Salton Sea, the Matterhorn looming over Disneyland. Not even Hollywood is in Hollywood anymore, our actual landscape now more likely to be CGI.
As a writer, though, I am still possessed with that first version of Los Angeles I saw, the raw landscape of a mountain cut with cars, of how the further we climbed the Grapevine, nature began to give way until the twinkling lights of the Valley were before us. "Is this the real L.A.?" I asked eventually. We were probably in Van Nuys at that point.
"No," my brother said. "You'll know. You'll see all of the stars."
It was a joke, though I think now maybe my brother was right all those years ago, because of course you can never see the stars in Los Angeles, not the real ones, at any rate. Perhaps this is why so many writers have constructed their own firmament here, a place with a western edge but no other sure points on the map.
Goldberg is the author of several books, including "Simplify" and the story collections "Other Resort Cities" and "Where You Lived."