L.A. stories

The author of "The Sea Came in at Midnight" recommends five great contemporary novels about Los Angeles.

Published April 19, 1999 7:01PM (EDT)

"The Death of Speedy" by Jaime Hernandez (1989)

Life among las locas, east of a Los Angeles River where no water flows: Amid the urban punk rubble she never quite fits into, running with grrrls tough enough to get by with one r, Maggie is distinguished as much by her enduring spirit as by her endless remorse at not somehow being better than she is, even as she's better than everyone around her. Funny, violent, sexy, tender and devastating, rejecting sensationalism as forcefully as sociological cant, disdaining cheap emotion as determinedly as glib resolutions, like a classic 19th century novel, this barrio masterpiece even has pictures. Quite a few of them.

"Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" by Philip K. Dick (1974)
Possessed by a vision his erratic voice could barely keep up with, Dick confronted the meaning of reality before moving on to the bigger question: the meaning of humanity. In the L.A. of the future -- 1988 -- Police General Felix Buckman flies over a city that awaits his judgment, where he lives in a depraved marriage with a woman whose appetite for sex and drugs is limitless; she also happens to be his sister. Her life disgusts him only slightly less than her death shatters him, and as night chases him across town, he slowly comes apart -- the inherent meaningless of reality overtaking whatever meaning humanity still holds.

"The Black Dahlia" by James Ellroy (1987)

All the dreams of postwar paradise distilled into one hallucinatory horror show from Hollywood Boulevard to the Tijuana border, compared to which the debauchery at the heart of "Chinatown" is about as shocking as a convent whisper. In the only city where murder is interchangeable with lust, where the unspeakable is confused with ecstasy, its final pages barely withstanding the heat of its own fever, this is a black epic of all L.A.'s obsessions -- what they buy and what they cost.

"The Zoo Where You're Fed to God" by Michael Ventura (1994)

A middle-aged medical surgeon, living in the moors of Echo Park, feels madness blow across him one night in the Santa Anas, and emerges on the other side of the wind as a surgeon of the soul. In a city that disenfranchises people of their identities, he dreams of operating on himself in desperate, exploratory search of a nervous system, until one night he finds the head of a gerenuk inside his own heart, the paw of a tiger inside his lungs, the foot of a chimpanzee inside his stomach. "How strange that his body had become an ark." Too passionate to be merely ruminative, too anarchic to be merely spiritual, finally this tour de force is too physically unsettled to be merely metaphysical, its conclusions lying far beyond the axis where man meets beast and bliss meets madness.

"Weetzie Bat" by Francesca Lia Block (1989)

Life among the crazees, west of the L.A. River: With the baby she's had by three fathers, and her gay pals Dirk and Duck, and her lover-man My Secret Agent Lover Man, Weetzie is distinguished as much by her eternally good heart as her wild-child ways. Always hip without ever losing her bracing naiveti, way cool without a cynical bone in her body, she careens across a shimmering '80s Wonderland of futuristic diners and retro-martini lounges and exotic hot dog stands that's half Hell-A and half Shangri-L.A., where love is the most dangerous angel in a city full of them.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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