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This is the ultimate book about Los Angeles because there’s no ultimate book about Los Angeles. There’s no last stop on the L.A. railway whose yellow trolleys went out of service in 1958, there’s no end to Oaxacans, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Central Americans and Bengalis inventing new lives in Koreatown, no one’s heading to the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire to disrupt the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, there’s no end to white hipsters and “creative types” coming to Los Angeles from NYC and points East to make it big, just like there’s no last offramp on the 10 freeway from heading across the desert to Texas and Florida. Which is to say, as the last city of the American civilization before the Pacific Plate subducts under North America and uplifts the ranges of the West, L.A. never stops, it never stops—L.A. never stops. Tropic of Orange dares to go there.

L.A.’s the city at the end of the continent that grinds out industrial daydreams and nightmares for the rest of the planet. “Hollywood will not rot on the windmills of eternity/ Hollywood whose movies stick in the throat of God,” Allen Ginsberg wrote, “Money! Money! Money! shrieking mad celestial money of illusion!” This city industrialized the imagination of the species. This city unspooled reels of Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields, killed Sam Cooke and Janis Joplin, buried Marilyn Monroe and the shadows of ten thousand Indians, Japanese and Vietnamese who dared to attack John Wayne and his cohort of innocents. Driving Route 66 to the edge of the continent, L.A. arrived at the end of the world first. Giant ants, earthquakes, aliens from outer space. The city limits, the Outer Limits. Time and again, even as it was wiped out by Martians in 1953 in War of the Worlds or in 1964 while Charlton Heston drove the empty avenues of downtown in Omega Man looking for vampires to machinegun, the city plowed the civilization’s subconscious and planted alien pod plants.

Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir classic, Chinatown, ostensibly set in 1937, makes no mention, of course, that in 1936 most of Chinatown was razed and buried under the newly built Union Station. Dodger Stadium commemorates in no way the Chicano neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, whose residents were forcibly evicted, whose properties were buried under landfill for baseball parking lots. Entire Japanese American neighborhoods emptied of residents for concentration camps during World War 2: East San Pedro Japanese American residents were given 48 hours to pack and leave—their fishing village then razed, their boats sold or burned. Entire Mexican American neighborhoods were razed and buried under famous freeways. Displacement, dispossession and dislocation continues these days under the guise of gentrification. These are stories that Hollywood can’t seem to imagine, because they’re actually happening. Look in vain for them in Chinatown, Blade Runner, Short Cuts, L.A. Confidential. The ostensibly intergalactic imagination of the movies doesn’t begin to approach hard-bitten realities reflected in the lives of the seven characters central to Tropic of Orange.

Tropic of Orange refracts the city’s passion like skyscrapers against the setting sun. This book holds in solar heat like a piece of granite. Even as the desert east of the San Gabriel mountains refracts the city’s energy like dream lightning in murky dreams of ex-L.A. hipsters gentrified out to Joshua Tree, in sun-bleached dreams of old rock guitarists and rock climbers, as wind scours trinkets of aluminum and plastic across the sand and gravel. Out there across the sand and gravel of his artist’s compound, Noah Purifoy’s human-scale monuments broadcast South Central passion to the cholla, creosote, and the stars. Out there, young black and Latino families from the Marine base shop at the Yucca Valley Walmart. Out there, errant music recorded in L.A. wafts like lost heat waves. Those lyrics, those phrases and rhythms re-emerge inscribed in these sentences, in these chapters. The revolution will not be televised, recalls Tropic of Orange on page 218, even as a romantically entangled Chicano and Japanese American couple, journalists, tragically try to prove it wrong.

If L.A. is that recombinant hybrid of the culture’s imagination and the civilization’s final history, of its weird and frequently terrible desires taken to their ultimate logical ends (freeways and car culture, cults and crazies, a police state hidden behind sunglasses and sun-tans), few novels live to tell actual Los Angeles stories and effectively take anything like its full measure. Tropic of Orange takes that apocalyptic tale on with Surrealist nerve and Futurist verve. Karen Yamashita looks on what the civilization wrought on this place, unafraid—she doesn’t turn away; five years after the 1992 riots (“the largest civil disturbance in modern times… 60 dead, one billion dollars damage…“), columns of smoke still rise from those conflicts of race and class. Seven voices, each distinguished by a distinct voice and POV, tell stories that sojourn the Pacific, traverse the Sonora Desert, cross mean streets and ethnic divides to meet, folding into one another in a wild (and wildly imagined) 7 days in Los Angeles.

In 2011, as visiting professor of creative writing at UC Santa Cruz, I wandered into the lunch counter at a cafe that Karen liked, and found her hosting a party of out of town visitors. She invited me to join them, and as I pulled up a chair, one of the visitors, Robert Allen, was talking about the Port Chicago mutiny, the largest mass mutiny in U.S. naval history, when 50 black sailors were court-martialed in 1944 after 700 men were blown apart (320 died) loading munitions aboard ships heading for the war in the Pacific. “Robert!” I said, jumping up, “you’re the only person I’ve ever heard talking about Port Chicago!” I ran over and gave him a hug. “The last time I saw you was in Nicaragua! How long has it been? Twenty years?” He’d written a book about Port Chicago and edited the Black Scholar journal for decades. I’d only learned about Port Chicago more than twenty years earlier and more than three thousand miles away, in Managua, in 1987, when Robert told me about it as we sat at a table with Alice Walker. I’ve only heard the story of Port Chicago twice in my life, both times by luck, the kind of luck and the kind of stories you get when Karen Yamashita invites you to sit at her table. Tropic of Orange invites you; try your luck—you’re in for seven kinds of L.A. stories that fold into an origami flower of razor-sharp titanium.

Sesshu Foster

see:

http://coffeehousepress.org/authors/karen-tei-yamashita/

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