Read Your Way Around Los Angeles

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Héctor Tobar is simply a lad of Los Angeles, a metropolis of “perpetual taste mixing.” Here, helium guides readers done the books and writers that chopped done the city’s layers.

May 17, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET


Credit...Raphaelle Macaron

Read Your Way Around the World is simply a bid exploring the globe done books.

On Sunset Boulevard successful Bel Air, thoroughfare vendors connection “Maps to the Stars’ Homes.” The vendors don’t merchantability “Maps to the Authors’ Homes,” which is simply a shame, due to the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote each lived nearby. A representation to the homes of Angeleno authors mightiness besides usher you to the bungalow wherever Bertolt Brecht penned 1 of his top plays, “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” And to the mansion wherever a teen named Susan Sontag visited 1 of her literate heroes, the German exile and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann.

Outsiders often deliberation of Los Angeles arsenic an anti-intellectual place, each Hollywood glitz and nary substance, but writers person ever been drawn to my hometown. In David L. Ulin’s “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology,” I work astir Simone de Beauvoir’s 1947 travel to L.A.’s Eastside, wherever she learned astir the city’s anti-Mexican prejudice and admired Dia de los Muertos skulls. She ate spicy chili con carne connected Olvera Street, the aforesaid tourer trap wherever I entertained visiting authors fractional a period later. “I beryllium down to portion the tequila, and I americium utterly dazed with pleasure,” she wrote.

Los Angeles gave those authors the aforesaid happening it’s fixed me: a imaginativeness of a metropolis filled with earthy delights and stark injustices, an Eden wherever radical from astir the satellite invent caller versions of themselves — and a hellish signifier of societal unrest. It’s nary mishap that 2 precise different, canonical works of L.A. lit climax with riots, adjacent though they were written much than a fractional period apart: Nathanael West’s 1939 caller “The Day of the Locust,” and Anna Deavere Smith’s play “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”

When East Coast literati inquire themselves this question, they often answer: Joan Didion. With her iconic 1960s and ‘70s essays astir Los Angeles and the West, successful collections specified arsenic “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion helped invent New Journalism. But I would brace Didion with a writer from a assemblage connected the other broadside of the metaphorical tracks.

At astir the aforesaid clip Didion was settling into a location successful Malibu and penning astir our notorious Santa Ana winds, Luis J. Rodriguez was joining a thoroughfare gang. Rodriguez’s memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days successful L.A.” is acceptable successful the gritty suburban sprawl of the San Gabriel Valley. It is an epic communicative of family, brotherly love, prejudice, drive-by shootings and the mundane pleasures of a vicinity wherever determination are inactive unfastened fields, swimming holes and different reminders of a caller agrarian past. Rodriguez gives america thing we seldom spot successful movies acceptable successful Los Angeles: the richness and play of its working-class life.

So does different San Gabriel Valley work: “Curse of the Starving Class,” the 1977 play by Sam Shepard astir a household surviving connected an avocado farm, with a freeway nearby. A fewer literate decades later, you’ll find the aforesaid scenery filling successful with nutrient stands selling menudo successful Salvador Plascencia’s experimental 2005 novel, “The People of Paper.” And finally, the San Gabriel Valley becomes the surreal signifier of the stories successful Carribean Fragoza’s fantabulous 2021 collection, “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You.”

Begin astatine downtown’s Grand Central Market, astatine its occidental entrance. To your left, you’ll spot the funicular Angels Flight, which gives its sanction to a detective novel by the immensely fashionable Michael Connelly. Angels Flight volition instrumentality you up to Bunker Hill, the mounting of galore an L.A. caller from the mid-20th century. “Bunker Hill is aged town, mislaid town, shabby town, crook town,” the noir maestro Raymond Chandler wrote, agelong earlier the neighborhood’s aged rooming houses were demolished.

I emotion this spot due to the fact that it’s the closest I tin get to John Fante’sAsk the Dust,” my favourite Los Angeles novel. Fante acceptable astir of “Ask the Dust” connected Bunker Hill and successful the downtown streets below, wherever his protagonist, Arturo Bandini, meets his emotion interest, the Mexican waitress Camilla. And here, successful the bureau gathering supra the market, Bandini buys a marijuana cigaret from a person who hides his stash successful a compartment wrong his woody leg.

Faulkner came to Los Angeles to write screenplays. He famously called it (and I paraphrase here) the integrative anus of the world. One of his favourite hangouts tin beryllium recovered conscionable 2 blocks from Grand Central Market: the stunning (and decidedly non-plastic) Gallery Bar astatine the Biltmore Hotel. Continuing connected my walking tour, you’ll find a parkland facing the Biltmore: Pershing Square, which features successful John Rechy’s pioneering caller astir cheery beingness “City of Night.”

A fewer blocks to the northbound lies the erstwhile tract of the all-night doughnut store wherever Rechy and different cheery and trans patrons fought backmost against constabulary harassment, and the cafeteria wherever Jack Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, dines with his Mexican American woman successful “On the Road.”

A spot further northbound you’ll travel upon the Hall of Justice, wherever Charles Manson was jailed and went connected trial, arsenic reported successful the 1974 existent transgression champion seller “Helter Skelter” — and wherever Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe is locked up successful “The Long Goodbye.”

Finally, you’ll scope Union Station. The parking batch and the small, sloping tract crossed Alameda Street are the tract of the city’s archetypal Chinatown. Lisa See’s great-grandfather owned a store here, arsenic we larn successful her beauteous household memoir “On Gold Mountain.” And a Mexican nanny connected an odyssey with the 2 boys successful her attraction passes done Union Station itself successful my caller “The Barbarian Nurseries.”

Los Angeles helped pioneer noir fiction, truthful let’s spell with a bully detective yarn. My favorite: “Devil successful a Blue Dress,” by Walter Mosley, with the audiobook work by the wonderful, multivoiced Michael Boatman. The caller tells the communicative of a Texas-born moving antheral unwittingly becoming a detective arsenic helium untangles a enigma that takes him to L.A.’s Black, achromatic and Latino neighborhoods. Mosley’s Black protagonist is drawn into a satellite of glamour, corruption and deep, Jim Crow-era racism. He longs for the simplest of L.A.’s pleasures — the 1 that keeps truthful galore of america here: a location with a plot of his own.

My archetypal bookstore was the long-ago vanquished Pickwick Books connected Hollywood Boulevard, the aforesaid locale wherever a young Susan Sontag was caught shoplifting a transcript of “Doctor Faustus.” These days I see the venerable Vroman’s, successful Pasadena, my vicinity bookstore. And I emotion wandering done the immense stacks and publication tunnels of downtown’s The Last Bookstore — the location, by the way, of a steamy enactment country successful the movie adaptation of “Gone Girl.”

Charles Bukowski made his sanction successful Los Angeles, arsenic did galore different poets, including Eloise Klein Healy, Douglas Kearney, Amy Uyematsu and Sesshu Foster. Many observers of our literate country called Wanda Coleman, who died successful 2013, the “unofficial writer laureate of Los Angeles.” Her poems archer of coming-of-age successful the Watts neighborhood, her puerility victories implicit racist librarians and the joys and tribulations of azygous motherhood. I’d commencement with her 2001 collection, “Mercurochrome.”

Back successful 1990, Mike Davis caused a sensation with his “City of Quartz,” which recounts stories astir forgotten socialist communes, brushwood fires, the commencement of L.A. noir and the scandals of L.A.’s aged wealth and its nouveau riche. Kelly Lytle Hernández’s “City of Inmates” shows Los Angeles arsenic being, from its founding, a spot of wide incarceration and fashionable absorption to policing.

And finally, successful William D. Estrada’s “The Los Angeles Plaza,” we spot 3 centuries of the city’s past unfold successful the fistful of blocks surrounding its archetypal municipality square. Estrada spins a communicative with an incredibly varied formed of characters, from the Tongva people who built the city’s archetypal Spanish religion to the anarchist Emma Goldman and the Japanese American merchants who were hauled disconnected to attraction camps during World War II. This book, similar truthful galore others astir my hometown, paints a representation of Los Angeles that is wholly acquainted to me: a metropolis of perpetual taste mixing, wherever each time brings caller encounters and struggles.

  • “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology,” David L. Ulin

  • “The Day of the Locust,” Nathanael West

  • “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Anna Deavere Smith

  • “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion

  • “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days successful L.A.,” Luis J. Rodriguez

  • “Curse of the Starving Class,” Sam Shepard

  • “The People of Paper,” Salvador Plascencia

  • “Eat the Mouth that Feeds You,” Carribean Fragoza

  • “Angels Flight,” Michael Connelly

  • “Ask the Dust,” John Fante

  • “City of Night,” John Rechy

  • “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac

  • “Helter Skelter,” Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

  • “The Long Goodbye,” Raymond Chandler

  • “On Gold Mountain,” Lisa See

  • “Devil successful a Blue Dress,” Walter Mosley

  • “Mercurochrome,” Wanda Coleman

  • “City of Quartz,” Mike Davis

  • “City of Inmates,” Kelly Lytle Hernández

  • “The Los Angeles Plaza,” William D. Estrada

Héctor Tobar’s books see the novels “The Tattooed Soldier,” “The Barbarian Nurseries” and “The Last Great Road Bum.” His astir caller book, “Our Migrant Souls,” is nonfiction and personal, touching connected his parents’ migration from Guatemala and his upbringing successful Los Angeles.

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