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'All Night Menu' uncovers a hidden history of Los Angeles

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Sam Sweet's 'All Night Menu' is an exploration of the lost corners and forgotten histories of Los Angeles

From the department of labors of love: Sam Sweet’s “All Night Menu” (64 pp., $20 paper) is my kind of project, an exploration of the lost corners and forgotten histories of Los Angeles. The first in a series of projected five volumes — additional books will be released in nine-month intervals — it gathers eight small stories, each keyed around a particular address.

“Buildings are demolished,” Sweet writes in an accompanying handout, “populations pass on, and neighborhoods mutate. The city changes. Addresses do not. Everything that happens, happens somewhere. Each resident shares his address with the invisible and the long departed. Even addresses with no history are full of it.”

What he’s talking about is memento mori, or, in Norman Klein’s word, an imago, a trace of some lost landscape, encoded in the present tense. That this is particularly important in Los Angeles, a city that, even now, remains almost willfully diffident about its history, is part of (or maybe all of) the point.

For Sweet, who lives in Highland Park and has written for the New Yorker and the Paris Review, the idea is to look below the surface, to discover in these traces something of who we are. His subjects include the oldest gang in the city, a pair of folkies from the Valley, William Faulkner, the Olympic Auditorium.

Here he is on Patricia McCormick, a female bullfighter gored so badly in the 1950s that she was given last rites: “On her wall hung a self-portrait of the young matadora in her regal traje de lucas, but even her closest neighbors at the three-story beige-and-brick apartment complex at 647 Orange Grove knew nothing of McCormick’s former life.”

Or this, about a 1950s surf shop built in the shadow of Venice’s oil wells: “The final derrick came down in 1962. The following year, a breakwater was erected in front of the entrance to Ballona Creek....  Plans were drawn to transform the poisoned wetlands into a pleasure harbor. And so, a peninsula once crowded by oil rigs and madcap surfers disappeared, soon to be rebranded and resold as upscale Marina del Rey.”

The writing is clear, unvarnished, inferential and direct at once. The subjects (with the exception of Faulkner, whose difficult and largely unfulfilling relationship with Hollywood was an inspiration for “All Night Menu”) are essentially unknown. And yet, in this silence, this anonymity, the story of the city is revealed.

“When it comes to this history,” Sweet writes, “books are useless.” And yet, of course, books allow us to recapture these lost fragments of the past.

I think of Klein’s “The History of Forgetting,” Carolyn See’s “Golden Days” and most of all, perhaps, Ry Cooder’s “Los Angeles Stories,” all of which frame the city as a “nothing place,” but one with its own history and style.

“All Night Menu” operates out of precisely such a lineage, offering Los Angeles to us on its own terms. It is a small book, published in a limited edition (the first printing, of 100 copies, has sold out, and a second run is in the works), a showcase and an artifact.

The result is to invest these nondescript corners of Southern California — addresses in Van Nuys, Hollywood, Pasadena — with a grace, a dignity.

“The city is vast and amorphous,” Sweet notes of the project. “The booklet is small and precise. It is not a walking tour, a visitor’s guidebook, or a street atlas. It is a periodic index of lost heroes and miniature histories. It’s only objective is to make the invisible equal to the visible.”

Twitter: @davidulin

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