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Barbarians at the beach

Marc Porter Zasada's weekly radio essay on modern life in Los Angeles, "The Urban Man," can be heard Monday evenings on KCRW.

WHEN writers visit Los Angeles, they often find Something Very Wrong here. It’s a noir something. A darkness-hiding-in-the-sunlight something. A vapid-facade, tragic-narcissistic, dystopic-unease sort of problem. We Angelenos failed to create paradise, and we must pay the price. Too much wealth and too much poverty lurk behind those bright lawns and giddy hibiscus, so our town’s bound to see trouble.

Occasionally, the SVW manifests itself in biblical fashion with an earthquake, a fire or a flood. Sometimes, it merely surfaces with a brief, perilous flash in the life of a Sharon Tate, an O.J. Simpson, or a Phil Spector.

Whatever the SVW may be exactly -- fate or hubris or just something in the air -- it has grown into a recognized discipline, like cosmology or anthropology. And along with distinguished researchers like Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, it attracts many lesser poets, novelists, filmmakers and commentators. Some, like social critic Mike Davis, have built entire careers on the SVW: proving its existence, discovering its habits and demonstrating its power. Just last year, an SVW flick named “Crash” won the Academy Award for best picture.

With “I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen,” journalist Amy Wilentz makes a lively, if modest, contribution to the field. She doesn’t much like L.A., and she claims that California “has a dark heart,” but that only places her in the mainstream of the SVW tradition. She sets out to update us on the improbabilities of life in the pueblo since her arrival in early 2002, she takes us inside L.A.'s salon culture and she deftly chronicles one of our most successful commercial products: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Wilentz is a seasoned traveler. She’s covered Haiti and the Mideast for the New Yorker and the Nation. Still, she asks us to picture her as a wide-eyed everywoman, another innocent Manhattanite tossed up, however reluctantly, on our shores: “I didn’t want to be in a place where -- according to the tropes, cliches, and stereotypes that I’d absorbed as a proper New Yorker -- everyone was blond, tan, cute, strong-jawed, empty-headed, and athletic, and possibly spiritually inclined. I was dark, bespectacled, bookish, and both physically and mentally not tan. I did not belong in L.A.”

Still, her husband, Nicholas Goldberg, lands a job at the L.A. Times, (he is editor of the op-ed page and the Current section), and she hopes to escape the anxiety of New York after 9/11 -- where she had actually bought an inflatable boat in case she had to escape across the Hudson. Not surprisingly, she finds an equal, even expanded sense of “catastrophism” along the Pacific.

Wilentz feels few earthquakes and sees no riots, but she does get close to fires and floods. And she reliably -- if rather traditionally -- conjures up the SVW while viewing prehistoric bones at the La Brea Tar Pits, while shopping the faux streets of the Grove, or while contemplating her eerily pleasant yard in the figurative shadow of the Hollywood Hills. She recalls Charles Manson’s relationship with the Beach Boys; she drives out to failed desert paradises like California City; she tours the sterile suburb of Lakewood with its resident poet, D.J. Waldie; she reads a good deal of Didion and perhaps too much Davis.

And apparently like every new everywoman in town, she does lunch with Warren Beatty, hangs in the salon of Arianna Huffington and mingles in the foyer of entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s enormous mansion along Sunset Boulevard. Along with the ever-looming presence of the Arnold, these folks become important local symbols: the handsome liberal, the reinvented immigrant, the savvy marketeers.

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The Resnicks make a fascinating study. They own vast tracts of agricultural land in the Central Valley -- along with fad-driven businesses like Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful juice and the Franklin Mint. Like other potent Angelenos, says Wilentz, they act as absentee landlords for American taste -- creating lowbrow kitsch as easily as designer waters. She explores what she calls their “Little Versailles” on the suspicion that it might be a safe house for the SVW and discovers (brace yourself) that L.A. fosters excess, even among billionaires.

Yes, the author makes occasional forays north: to the Esalen Institute at Big Sur (where she investigates the failures of the ‘60s) and all the way to Sacramento (where she fails to meet the Arnold). But despite her often-repeated promises, this book is not about California as a whole -- indeed, it mistakenly assumes that L.A. facades represent California facades, that our noir reflects a statewide noir. And while mocking us for our celebrity worship, it must be pointed out that she also dwells on celebrity: the few working people we meet tend to be valet parking attendants in Bel-Air.

Wherever she travels, Wilentz finds something, well, wrong: our too-easy wealth, our too-easy fame, our frank pursuits. The Resnicks understand marketing perhaps too well. Huffington’s spiritual advisor, the ever-smiling John-Roger, proves perhaps too “quackish.” We are chastened to learn that "[n]o one ever gives a party just to have fun .... A party here always has a money aspect and an informational aspect -- as if they have to justify a party and prove that their heads contain something other than air.” And we’re relieved when she finds comfort among the self-mocking “Morons,” a rump group of L.A. thinkers organized by writers Mickey Kaus and Ann Louise Bardach. Much of the fun in this book comes from learning who hangs in which salon: who’s formal, who’s casual, and who, like Rob Reiner, “pontificates.”

Wilentz paints expert and convincing portraits. Her observations prove charming, incisive, even true. And yes, even locals will picture the SVW more clearly through her eyes. Nevertheless, in the same way her anti-Israel slant might have made you uncomfortable with her Mideast coverage or her pro-Aristide stance might have troubled you in Haiti, Wilentz does push local stereotypes a bit far. When we read “Everyone at Huffington’s is arrogant in his or her own private way, in his or her own private sphere, and that’s part of the reason they all get along so well,” we do get a little worried that Wilentz won’t be invited back. OK, not that worried; she probably spelled everyone’s names correctly.

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Wilentz is at her best when she writes about Schwarzenegger and his outsized role in our collective psyche. During the recall election of 2003, the Terminator offered, she says, a post-9/11 comfort figure, the superhero we all craved. She traces Schwarzenegger’s global iconography, his crudity and the puncturing of his hyper-inflated ego in the special election of 2005. “More than anything,” she says, “he reminds me of Hercules, who killed snakes in his crib, and who had to be taught and taught again to have a conscience, to have second thoughts about the uses of his own power.” As often happens, she overstates her case, but we enjoy the simile.

Is there really Something Very Wrong with L.A., and by extension, this unredeemed but still-golden state? Are we really just successful barbarians? Is our power so unworthy? Are our virtues really so few? Is our genius merely crass? “Gee,” the longtime Angeleno wants to ask, “can’t we at least take pride in the way we surfed the big curl coming off that last, really gnarly century? You know, how we rode it so high and wild?”

In the end, Wilentz does not provide answers to such questions, and remains content simply to register her notes in the SVW archives.

The book concludes with her drive into the first stages of a large storm. The coming rain may prove catastrophic -- but it may not -- and she leaves the consequences of her journey, like those of L.A. itself, for future researchers to ponder.

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For this she may be forgiven. We Angelenos have not yet determined the moral of our own tale, and surely we should appreciate it when our foibles are pointed out so skillfully. Really we should. Unfortunately, as usually happens when the SVW is brought to our attention, we smile with a vague embarrassment, we acknowledge each well-aimed blow and then we return to our gaudy search for paradise.


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