Spacing Lee B. Montgomery
Absolute Disaster

Absolute Disaster


You write your Manhattan story and you put your taxis, your junkies, Kafka at Zabar’s, Soho galleries, Shakespeare in the Park, drag queen ophelias, Broadway, clubs, heavy irony, the schmaltzy skyline. Then you try your L.A. story: Hollywood sign, freeways, the Marlborough man smirking death-like down on Sunset, contemplative smogs of sulfur dioxide and Paco Rabanne, daffy palms, studio turn-around, gangs, D-girls, no rain, no irony… but something’s wrong. L.A. doesn’t hold still the way New York does. L.A. is moving.

It’s moving, of course, all the time, round-the-clock in cars on its lethally-interconnected empire of freeways. Its moving in the sky, in helicopters, jets, Goodyear blimps bearing one-liners out over the basin. Its weather is moving, jumpy as context in video-cam reportage. As Joan Didion observed a while back, the weather of Los Angeles is not resort-like, it is apocalyptic. We have fires, floods, Med-fly plagues, tidal waves, strange low-pressure cells, fog, lost satellites and insistent UFOs. And don’t forget, the earth is moving. Los Angeles is constantly inching, crawling, hauling itself toward the Outer Rim: a city with a colossal case of the creeps.

You might say all of these stories have the creeps. They glance back over their shoulders, in rear-view mirrors, hand-held compacts. We are so used to disasters here that we expect disaster, we write it into our stories like firey backdrop (“Appease the Natives” by Peter Craig) or Lawrence Thornton’s unnerving operatic disaster, like Harlan Ellison’s ghastly, contemporary Billy the Kid (William Bonney) cruising the freeway in his death-mobile, a blood-red diabolically equipped Mercury GT. We are, in a sense, “pre-disastered,” so that anything that happens to our characters, catastrophe-wise, has a distinct aura of déjà vu, anti-climax, post-mortem. In regard to the latter, we have “Tongue” (“Love is a tricky business”) by Jenny Cornuelle and Benjamin Weissman’s “The Present”: politely (or not so politely) toying with post-death (as in dead) loved ones, tales of necrophilia and necromancy or plain old stubborn refusal to acknowledge that final unappealable sentence.

Michelle Latiolais subverts (and “involutes”) our sense of disaster by unraveling exposition, description—reducing it to an oddly vulnerable extreme in “legal” language—letting us take a long nearly-unwilling look at the subject, like freeway accident-gawkers. “Crying,” a story by Jerry Renek, raises accident-gawking to a level of semi-dignity: a fascination with car crashes forms the primary bond in a relationship. Amy Gerstler revamps our sense of expectation, (“Minute by minute we conquer things and continue”) as Jim Krusoe’s character, a walking disaster, turns the tables on fate.

Some, as in Krusoe’s story, thrive on disaster, some understand its random, ongoing appearance in Los Angeles better than others. In “All Along the Watchtower,” a tale of gangs in South Central, Jervey Tervalon records the griim riffs on a once-innocuous lifestyle that random violence invites.

All those outdoor gatherings, something one would expect in Southern California, an afternoon with family and friends in one of the many neighborhood parks, became a big gamble.

We are moving fast here in L. A. and disaster moves with us, always just a step ahead or behind, in the car, in a park, at home, in the garden, in the hot tub (forgive me, where it is absolutely obligatory that disasters happen! I think Raymond Chandler would agree, the sybaritic invites Big Trouble, Nathaneal West would sure deep-six his least-invigorating characters in that hot chemical-blue water). Here, our characters envision Los Angeles’ “arrow of time” (a term in physics) as reversed: we forget the future even as we move through it, heading forward into the past (now the future). An earthquake, for example, can call up memories of what will be—just as the brave and mercurial stories in this collection tell us that we are moving away from that sunny California-dream future that seemed (at one time) assured. We are moving into rupture, memory; we are remembering the worst of it even as we imagine it. We have our earthquake kits and our first-stage alert masks—we have this remarkable anthology as aesthetic First Aid—we are inching closer to that wild temporal edge, our hour come round at last.

As Carolyn Sees says in “Light Ages:”
There will be those who say it never happened, that we squeaked through. Believe them if you can.
—Carol Muske Dukes, Los Angeles, 1996