Blake Nelson was in his mid-40s when he decided he wanted to learn how to surf. By then, he was already the author of a dozen books, including the Young Adult favorites "Paranoid Park" and "Girl." Nelson jokes that surfing was part of his "midlife crisis."
The native of Portland, Ore., and longtime New York resident moved out to Venice Beach five years ago. He lived three blocks from the beach, "right in the thick of it," he said, in a unique culture of surfers, skateboarders, homeless people and assorted mystics and musicians.
"There are not that many places in the world that have such a dense population of weirdoes and misfits," said Nelson.
But it was the young, rootless people living in Venice Beach who intrigued him the most. He remembered the stories a friend from Portland told him about moving to California as a teenager and living on the beach. Nelson wondered what it would be like to be a teen runaway scrapping by to live in such a crazy community.
"I often think about runaway kids, or homeless kids, as living this desire to be free," Nelson said. "What would it be like to be free of my parents, my school?"
From that daydream, a novel was born: "The Prince of Venice Beach" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $18, ages 12 and up).
Like Nelson, the protagonist of the young adult book isn't a local. Robert "Cali" Callahan is a runaway from Nebraska living on the beach and on the streets of Venice — and in the backyard treehouse of a yoga-loving feminist with a generous heart.
As the novel opens, Robert has been bumming around Venice Beach for three years. He can more than hold his own on the beach's famous basketball courts and seems to know just about every other street kid in the neighborhood.
"When I first came to Venice I was so clueless. I couldn't skate, I couldn't surf, I didn't know what 'gnarly' meant," Robert says. "People called me 'Cali' or 'California' as a joke. But now I really was 'California,' maybe more than a lot of people."
Robert is street savvy, but he's also a Midwesterner, which means he's "practical and good on his word," Nelson said. "He's not a scammer. If he says he's going to do something, he does it." That makes Robert a good ally to a series of private investigators who arrive in Venice Beach tracking down runaway kids.
Robert discovers he has a talent for finding people. He starts dreaming of a career as a private investigator, a profession for which he is already well prepared — among other things, he's a and sharp observer of all the people around him. "The Prince of Venice Beach" soon becomes an engaging hybrid of young adult and noir genres.
For Nelson, as for many other writers before him, "the cool and dark feel" of Los Angeles seems to lend itself to the noir genre. "I've lived in New York, but it didn't get into my skin so much," Nelson said. "When I'm in L.A., everything becomes more interesting. There's something about the physical culture of the place."
In Nelson's Venice Beach there are trash dumpsters, boutiques, nightclubs and the public, open-air showers where even a teenager without a home or a cent to his name can go to refresh himself. Against this backdrop, "The Prince of Venice Beach" moves swiftly toward the kind of ending Chandler might have written.
"You can never tell who's lying and who's telling the truth," Robert says. L.A. can be that way. Often, as in "The Prince of Venice Beach," the city's darkest places can be found where the sun shines the brightest.