What’s the Perfect Epigraph for Los Angeles?

As editor of a short story anthology called “Los Angeles Noir” that’s due out in April 2007, I’ve been forced to think about this city in new and challenging ways which take me to places where mere writing can’t. For example, right now I’m scouring L.A. literature for a quote to place at the book’s beginning that would perfectly encapsulate, in a sentence or two, the edgy noir essence of LA.

That’s called the epigraph, as I’ve just learned, and it’s more tricky and mind-bending than it sounds. I’ve got a huge pile of books at my bedside and I’m spending all my spare time parsing them for those scant, elusive magical sentences that I hope will perform a kind of hyper-compressed flash fiction haiku shorthand for what it means to live and dream and die violently in the City of Angels today.

I’ve opted to steer clear of very appropriate but over-exposed authors like Raymond Chandler, whose “down these mean streets” quote has by now been ground almost into the asphalt. So Chandler and Cain and a few of the other usual literary suspects are out. But then again, my epigraph can’t be from someone so obscure that readers say huh? For example, Salka Viertel’s memoir “The Kindness of Strangers,” which recounts the exploits of European artists, musicians, actors and writers who settled in L.A. after fleeing Hitler, makes for absolutely riveting reading, but will it resonate with enough people?

On one hand, it would be nice to have a contemporary author, since Los Angeles Noir is a collection of all new writing from some of LA’s most intriguing voices. But I can’t use quotes from any of my contributors, people like Michael Connelly and Janet Fitch whose lyrical writing about LA is regularly acclaimed as making the city a 3-D character in its own right. That just doesn’t sit right. And then again, some of the older observations are so pithy, so timeless, that they show how the more the city changes, the more its elemental character stays the same, as another over-used quote in French has it.

Ideally, the quote would contain the words Los Angeles and would evoke something noir, sinister, desperate, moody or eerie. I’m an equal opportunity epigraphista, so I’ve even looked at songs. Initially I had high hopes for the X song “Los Angeles,” a favorite of my dissolute youth. But re-reading the lyrics 20 years on, which begin so hopefully with “She had to leave Los Angeles. She bought a clock on Hollywood Boulevard the day she left,” Exene Cervenka and John Doe segue into a couple of line that manage to use the “N” word plus slam three other groups of people. I know that the song was written in the equal-opportunity-insult punk spirit, embracing demotic form and showing a world-weariness and irony. Still, I decided against pissing off African-Americans, Jewish Americans, gay Americans and idle rich Americans in one fell swoop before they’d even started reading the stories.

I’m quite fond of a 1949 book by Dorothy B. Hughes called “In A Lonely Place” which is told from the first person perspective of a male serial killer. Hughes is much lesser known than her contemporaries Chandler, Cain and Ross Macdonald, but she should be right up there in the pantheon. Could this omission be because she was a gasp! woman who dared to write noir more than a half-century ago? Undoubtedly! I love Hughes’ descriptions of the serial killer stalking a lone woman through the evening fog on the California incline in Santa Monica which launches the novel. While “Lonely” is a contender, I’m not sure it will make the final cut because it’s too generic and doesn’t scream “Los Angeles.” I don’t know if people outside of the Westside even know where or what the California incline is. (For the curious, it’s that short, steep street that takes you from Palisades Park just north of the Santa Monica Pier onto Pacific Coast Highway. At any rate, I’ve reread the whole book and don’t find any LA-specific descriptions or musings that strike just the right chord. Instead, Hughes focuses very tightly on the interior landscape of her serial killer. So the search continues!

Chester Himes is another possibility. After Los Angeles Noir contributor Gary Phillips told me that Himes set his 1949 book “Lonely Crusade” in LA, I read it with notepad in hand. It’s must-read literature for anyone interested in LA history, a social document as well as a fascinating novel. I’ve culled several possibilities from “Lonely,” but again, Himes is more interested in telling the complex psychological story of his doomed labor organizer than waxing lyrical about Los Angeles. Besides, with all the racism and economic disparity in late 1940s LA, the city probably wasn’t such a lyrical place for its minority residents.

Next up to peruse: William Faulkner’s collected letters, Jack Kerouac, Walter Mosley, Kate Braverman, Christopher Isherwood’s Journals 1939-1960, Mike Davis’ City of Quartz and others. I’ll keep you posted. And if you’ve got anything for me to consider, feel free to drop me a line.

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