Reading Janet Fitch’s exquisite new novel took me hurtling back to the glory days of L.A.’s punk scene and gritty places like the Starwood, the Hong Kong Café, Madame Wong’s, Al’s Bar, the ON Club, the Cathay de Grande, Dancing Waters, the Anti-Club, the Atomic Café and other places I frequented in the early 1980s.
“Paint It Black” gave me that giddy rush of meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in years but had remained quite fond of. As many people before me have noted, there was a raw energy to that era, as bands like X, the Blasters, the Cramps, the Germs, Black Flag, the Suburban Lawns, The Plugz and so many others came of age on the beer and spittle-drenched stages of LA’s most scrappy clubs. And it wasn’t just music -- punk was an aesthetic that embraced photography, clothes, cinema, graphics, painting, comics, poetry and alternative journalism (the early days of the LA Weekly and the Reader) when everyone seemed to bleed talent.
Fitch was at Skylight Books in Los Feliz last week, her last stop on a national tour, and a large and enthusiastic crowd showed up to welcome her home. (I’ve lived nearby long enough to remember Skylight in its earlier incarnation as Chatterton's Bookshop.)
Fitch told the crowd she hadn’t been a punk herself, but was friends with people who had. Likewise, I never chopped off my hair or sang in a band, but I knew people who did and I went to heaps of shows. (Authors are almost never joiners, we prefer to lurk and observe from the sidelines).
I’ve often thought that LA’s punk scene would make a fantastic setting for a novel, and Janet Fitch’s book has a definite punk sensibility, though her publisher has downplayed that angle. Maybe they were worried it wouldn’t play in Peoria and wanted to cast the widest possible marketing net for the Oprah-pick author who penned the mega-seller “White Oleander.”
But “Paint It Black” actually straddles two worlds and the novel is richer for it. Waifish art model Josie Tyrell is caught between the punk life and the gilded, beveled world of her dead boyfriend’s mother, world-class concert pianist and narcissist, Meredith Loewy. These two women from very opposite worlds (Bakersfield vs. Vienna) are thrust together by the boy’s suicide, joined in grief, mutual suspicion and loathing, and therein lies the tale.
I’m not giving anything away here – the boyfriend commits suicide as the book opens. Fitch lets that play out against a real suicide – that of punk maverick Darby Crash, who had the bad timing to off himself as John Lennon was gunned down in New York. That both marginalized any attention Crash had hoped to gain and enshrined him in the Great Hall of Irony. Crash’s suicide is another bit of LA punk history that Fitch captures so well. I remember rueing Darby, just like Josie, while my college roommates mourned John Lennon. But I’d seen Darby, in his leathers and Mohawk, five feet away on the Starwood stage, his sweat tangling my eyelashes. Lennon was some kind of barely corporeal creature, impersonal and mythic as a deity).
If Josie’s world revolves around her punk friends, Meredith’s world takes us into another nostalgic subculture of LA – the European émigrés who arrived in the 30s and 40s, fleeing Hitler. Meredith is the daughter of a Viennese composer, friend of Arnold Schoenberg, Billy Wilder, Aldous Huxley and Greta Garbo, and the images of this lost time are also lovingly portrayed.
The inevitable clash of old world and new and Josie’s struggle to understand the truth about her dead lover and come to peace with his suicide is told in Fitch’s usual sumptuous and yet precise language. Her ability to write about LA’s natural world is unrivaled, and the book builds to an almost hallucinatory climax, gorgeously written, that ends in a welcome catharsis.
But I also especially liked a scene earlier on, where Josie’s punk friend Pen (a correspondent for Puke magazine) trashes a room in Loewy’s Los Feliz mansion, kicking over a table with her Doc Martens, as she tries to convince Josie to leave with her. The symbolism of this scene, the new world kicking over the traces of the old, felt just right. The great irony, of course, is that the LA punks of the late 70s/early 80s and the European avant-garde had more in common than either Josie or Meredith realize – both sought to kick in society’s door, set the world on fire and rebuild it in their own image.
But then, L.A. has always been a city of refugees, of misfits, of malcontents. It’s what lies beneath the flawless glassine surface. It’s what makes us interesting and keeps us on the edge, and not just of a continent. Fitch knows that. And in whisking us inside these two disparate worlds, separated by only 40 years, she’s told a story that resonates, the world over.