Wilentz does California *

WilentzFirst thing Amy Wilentz did when she moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Nick Goldberg — op-ed editor at the LAT — was to write a book about California and the Schwarzenegger phenomenon. We here at LA Observed are still eyeing it on our pile, but today's New York Observer takes a crack at reviewing I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger. She visits California City, Big Sur, the Salton Sea and other offbeat corners of the state, but it's the part of the review where they and she talk about her adopted hometown and the Governator that got my attention.

Of course, Eastern disdain for Southern California is a fine old tradition—which is kind of funny, since so many Easterners (and plenty of New Yorkers) live there. As Amy Wilentz reminds us several times in I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, a winding memoir doing double duty as a travelogue and sociopolitical study, she’s just a Jersey girl (Perth Amboy) and former resident of the Upper West Side trying to figure out the Southland thing. When her husband took a job at the Los Angeles Times in 2003, Ms. Wilentz, an accomplished journalist and former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, packed up and touched down in “a gas-guzzling consumathon with hundreds of thousands of miles of asphalt but barely any public transportation.”

Which isn’t to say that Ms. Wilentz flat-out dislikes Los Angeles—throughout, she carefully monitors her ambivalence and settles for a heavily qualified “O.K.” As she playfully notes, such is the lot of many New Yorkers who both love and loathe the same things: cars, blondes, pools, sunshine—the whole SoCal shebang. Still, she catalogs all the greatest hits from the Southern-California-as-apocalypse play list: the threat of earthquakes, subdivisions besieged by brushfires, way too many people and not nearly enough water—that is, until it rains, which brings mudslides and wrecked houses. You know the drill.

As all this is happening, Ms. Wilentz also tries to get her head around the political earthquake otherwise known as Arnold Schwarzenegger, who swept to victory in a Republican-led recall of Democrat Gray Davis in 2003. Ms. Wilentz states her liberal bona fides, but she has a soft spot for the Governator, even if she can’t quite explain why. She more or less gives him a pass on his alleged bad behavior and sexual indiscretions. Her intellect tells her he’s a bad thing, but, refreshingly, she doesn’t dismiss him—or the carnivalesque recall, which had most Democrats frothing at the mouth. She concludes that there’s a certain kooky logic to the rise of Governor Schwarzenegger: He’s a huckster, a glad-hander, a salesman, a cad, an affable lunkhead, yet he somehow makes sense. After all, like many Californians, Mr. Schwarzenegger is a “self-invented figure,” she notes, and hardly the first movie star to get himself elected to California office...

More later on this book, I'm sure. * In fact, here's some now: In this month's Harper's, John Leonard gives it warm embrace. It's not online that I can find, but here's a sample:

To that short shelf of Chandler, Didion, Mike Davis, Carey McWilliams, Peter Shrag, Kevin Starr, and Nathanael West, all of whom she's read and quoted, add some Evelyn Waugh, because Wilentz too is very funny, and some Ross Macdonald, because they've both read Freud. She flings a short, Jewish , Volvo-driving, smart-mouth fiftysomething from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, against a culture of liposucked performance politics.


Hard not to laugh as well as to succumb to a peculiar agnosticism about reality itself....I grew up in the Lakewood that so appalls her. There were parks, teachers, and schools to be proud of. Some of us, even in those tract homes, wrote poems against the hydrogen bomb, and ended up in libraries and insane asylums, just like Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Nevertheless, I did leave as soon as I could for a big Eastern city where you didn't flunk a puberty rite because you hated cars and volleyball -- and where the women were as smart, swift, funny, and furious as Amy Wilentz.

Previously on LA Observed:
Gay Talese does L.A.
Going deep on the recall

Photo: Rory Flynn/New York Observer

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