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L.A. Catastrophes of Fictional Proportions

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Earthquake, riot, fire, flood, really big winds--can the locusts or frogs be far behind?

So goes the weary joke Angelenos make after every new disaster--natural or otherwise--in the near-biblical tempering of Los Angeles.

“I used to get calls from friends who would say, ‘This is the first week you haven’t been on CNN!’ ” says Lee Montgomery, editor of Santa Monica City College’s literary journal, Santa Monica Review.

And so when Montgomery decided to compile an anthology of short fiction by L.A. writers, what better unifying theme?

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“Absolute Disaster: Fiction From Los Angeles,” newly co-published by the Review and Dove Books, features short stories by 25 L.A.-based writers--some native, some transplants, some familiar names like Harlan Ellison, Carolyn See and Sandra Tsing Loh, and others emerging authors. Surprisingly, acts of God are not as rampant as one might think.

“A lot of the things are not disasters at all,” explains Montgomery, former fiction editor at the Iowa Review. “It was never meant to be about natural disasters. It was kind of a loose thing, various hurdles we encounter as being human, a mishap or unfortunate event, a peculiar irony.”

And so the stories, bundled into categories such as “Disasters in Love,” “In Cars,” “In Spirit, Imagination and Thinking,” cover a wide range of calamity as relationships break down, loved ones die and really bad jobs are endured.

In T.C. Boyle’s story “Flood,” the flood in question is not the result of rain or overflowing river, but a unique one produced by a woman mourning (or is she?) the death of her husband.

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Benjamin Weissman’s “The Present” strays into the area of necrophilia while Robert Crais’ “The Man Who Knew Dick Bong” presents a classically hard-boiled and softhearted private detective.

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None of the stories was written specifically for the anthology, but Montgomery had no trouble finding writers with something in their hope chest that filled the bill.

“I think probably every short story has some kind of disaster in it,” says Loh, whose “Raiding the Larder” shows how “experiences with younger men and dating are definitely disasters.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a story in which nothing went wrong. What makes a story go forward?”

One of the few stories featuring a literal disaster grew from a decidedly uncomfortable case of life imitating art and taking it over. C.P. Rosenthal was in the middle of writing “Forever Burning,” his story about a man escaping a fire in Topanga Canyon, when his computer switched off. The power had gone out . . . because the very real Topanga fire was heading his way.

“I looked up and saw smoke coming over the hill,” Rosenthal recalls. “With the Ventura fire a few days before, I had been dreaming of getting trapped on the road getting out. I’m fire sensitive. That started me writing the story, which became a love story of sorts, around fire and desire and passion and infidelity. Those metaphors just started folding in on each other.” Until he was interrupted by a fire that was anything but metaphorical.

Rosenthal found himself fleeing his house with his daughter and a cat, even as his protagonist would do once Rosenthal returned to his unburned home and finished writing what had become, as he put it, a much more textured story.

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Real life drama notwithstanding, the writers agree that disaster is sometimes a state of mind.

“Disaster, to me, means in some big or small way things going wrong. And that’s obviously a matter of perception, right?” says Amy Gerstler. “Let’s say your puppy chewed up all the shoes in your house. She probably had a fine time doing that. In her mind, a red letter day, the highlight of her puppy life. In your mind, it’s an amazing disaster--you don’t have any shoes now.”

Gerstler’s entry, “Dinosaurs,” features a young woman revisiting the natural history museum of her (and, quite possibly, the reader’s) childhood with her mother, while worrying about a friend who is gravely ill. The story arguably has one of the lighter tones in the book, a deliberate sort of whistling in the dark, attempting to remain lighthearted even in melancholy circumstances.

“I think part of being human is learning to roll with the punches, to deal with any kind of personal or professional disaster that might crop up,” Gerstler says. “You have to learn to deal with that stuff or not survive.”

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In some ways, the inescapable L.A. / disaster symbiotic relationship is symbolized by the book’s co-publisher, Dove Books, better known for less-than-natural and somewhat L.A.-specific disasters such as several O.J.-related tomes and “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again.”

Montgomery says the title for the collection came about when a friend jokingly suggested Absolut Vodka might agree to be a corporate sponsor--which, though it didn’t come to pass, would have been a very L.A. thing.

Of course, title and theme are a wry comment on how closely L.A. and disasters are tied together, at least in the minds of those outside the Basin.

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“I think the rest of country enjoys thinking L.A. is a cult of teeming disaster,” says contributor Charlie Hauck, whose story “Bust” is one of the few that deal with the ongoing L.A. disaster that is the entertainment industry. “It comforts them because they don’t live here. I had a friend who, after the earthquake, called me and his reaction to the coverage on the news was ‘great weather out there.’ ‘Didn’t you see the bodies?’ ‘Yes, but they were wearing shorts!’ ”

But is L.A.'s bad rep deserved? The writers, all but one of whom live in L.A., are loyal to their town.

“I think maybe L.A. has a cataclysmic quality,” Loh says. “Somehow people believe that people in L.A. don’t have a sense of irony about where they live. But I think that’s totally L.A.”


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