Recent Writings from the Golden State

Paul Tullis reviews the book "Unnatural Disasters: Recent Writings from the Golden State," edited by Nicole Panter.

By Paul Tullis

Published October 2, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

It's more than a little tendentious to subtitle an anthology "Recent Writings from the Golden State" when 92 percent of its authors are from L.A. and the surrounding metroplex. And it's a little suspect that the editor of this volume -- a teacher at the California Institute for the Arts -- includes four writers who are students, teachers or recent graduates of said institution.

So, as a San Franciscan, I was primed to hate this book, and I sniffed audibly at every mention of the Northridge quake and Dennis The Menace. That said, there are more than a few pieces in this scattershot collection that manage to rise well above Angeleno clichis about models and screenwriters.

Notable among them is Bob Flanagan's "Pain Journal," a piece written from the perspective of a performance artist dying of cystic fibrosis that relates the problems of his pain medications and of his decaying sexuality. I found it all a bit overwrought -- until I read his bio and learned that Flanagan was indeed a performance artist dying of cystic fibrosis who had problems with his pain medications and his decaying sexuality, and who died early this year, and that "Pain Journal" is not fiction. Gulp.

What do you call a "memoir" that mostly concerns someone else? That describes filmmaker Allison Anders' contribution here, a recollection of her mother's love affairs following Anders' father's desertion. She is a writer of many strengths, the most admirable, I found, the ability to form small pearls of wisdom: "Love rarely chooses to exist when it knows the ending ahead of time." Trite? Maybe. But I found its truth alarming. Memorable, too, is Bernard Cooper's rumination on the ambivalent sexuality of his youth. It starts with his first sighting of a pair of transvestites (though he didn't know they were called that) on Hollywood Boulevard at the age of eight. "I felt as if everything I understood, everything I had taken for granted up to that moment, had been squeezed out of me," he writes.

Carol Treadwell's account of a Gen-X party is startling in the immediacy of its language. Jerry Stahl's account of a teenager's sexual experience with a much, much older woman over the armrests of an airplane seat is just startling. Daniel Cano's story of police brutality would work better as a rap song. Other pieces range from forgettable to mildly amusing, but Cooper's and Anders' memoirs manage to carry the whole book.

Paul Tullis

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