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"Only in L. A.," says Mortie, the chainsmoking coroner in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, as he examines the corpse of a man who has drowned in a dry riverbed. Mortie's shrugged-off comment would have made a great epigraph for editor David Fine's fine collection of critical essays, Los Angeles in Fiction. Mortie's comment signals the uniqueness of the Southern California experience. However, it also embodies the central idea that underpins any study or discussion of "regional literature." The idea that a certain place or sense of place can generate a literature, a style, a set of themes, an imagery, even a moral vision all its own is what Fine's book sets out to prove, and his collection succeeds with style and a hardboiled sense of itself that captures and analyzes the uniqueness of the Southern California experience thoroughly and intelligently. Readers of academic journals and college students in American literature classes are all too familiar with the most famous centers of regional literature: the New England of Hawthorne, Melville, Irving, and Frost; the South of Faulkner, Welty, and Warren; the New York of Fitzgerald, Mailer, and Updike. All of these have been nominated at one time or another as the region for American literature, but David Fine and colleagues show themselves more than eager to throw another hat (colored Dodger blue, no doubt) into the ring. Los Angeles in Fiction is a collection of essays by separate hands that accurately feel the pulse of the Southern California experience, which has generated some of twentieth-century America's most exciting fiction.
The uniqueness of L. A. fiction is initially defined in the first two essays, the editor's Introduction and Richard Lehan's "The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West," and is subsequently reenvisioned or at least touched upon by almost every other essay in the collection. Fine's Introduction far overshadows Lehan's somewhat fragmented and labored essay as a vehicle for defining the ideas that will bubble merrily over all of the critics whom Fine has invited to immerse themselves in this hot tub of a subject.
For Fine, L. A. fiction begins in the late Twenties when "real" writers, both American Easterners and Southerners and more easterly Englishmen, began arriving to pen gold in Hollywood: "most of them wrote novels that gave the city its metaphoric shape, established a way of reading the Southern California landscape that would persist through successive decades into the sixties and seventies." These "outsiders" drew the "contrast between the place left behind and the place discovered. . . ." They all turned "the region's sham architecture" into a "metaphor for the absence of artistic control," and they all envisioned California as the last frontier of the American dream that had turned to nightmare and was "running out along the California shore." Thus was born the "Los Angeles Anti-Myth"—"Southern California as the place of the fresh start and as the scene of the disasterous finish."
This strong sense of the death of the dream is epitomized in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust but also establishes full residency in James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? , Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, and the stunning detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Fine is perhaps best at defining the imagery of the Anti-Myth. For him, L. A. fiction depends upon "a landscape always weighted with symbolic [End Page 755] meaning." The central symbols of the Southern California Anti-Myth are "counterfeit architecture," a city that "has no clearly distinguishable center" and "no distinguishable periphery," houses as "indexes of character," movie roles, the menace of the ocean, the oil spill, and, especially, the fire, and violence by gun "and, most appropriately for the locale, by automobile." Lehan's essay does not add that much to Fine's articulate definitions. He agrees that "no city in the western...