Back in the Day

LA, LA, LA, LA, LA

John Buntin ably investigates the stories behind mid-century Los Angeles.

Book Cover New York City may be the American megalopolis hated by outlanders and flyover-zone residents (in part because apparently that's where that unfortunate rubric originated), but L.A. seems to draw more negative commentary. Artists like Jack Kerouac and Alejandro Jodorowsky have called it "the loneliest city on the planet." I harbor no such feelings, though I am amused by the metaphor that has N.Y.C. as the opening of the U.S.A.'s alimentary system and L.A., you guessed it, at the terminal end.

For the most part I think Los Angeles has been better depicted in film--L.A. Confidential, Bugsy, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, The Day of the Locusts--than in fiction; Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and T. Jefferson Parker notwithstanding. Though I like Michael Connelly's writing, I have never found his Harry Bosch series particularly instructive or descriptive of LaLaland. Pete Dexter's under-praised, standalone novel Train was a more evocative snapshot than the Bosch bibliography.

Now comes John Buntin's completely engaging L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City (Harmony). In a life in which books are prominent in my surroundings and occupy many units of however we measure neurological space, to say I love a particular book doesn't mean I am any less devoted to countless other tomes. In this instance, Buntin's new opus, for which I must profess my great admiration. To give some ostensive rationale for my reaction to this book I can point to the works of Michael Lewis, Erik Larsen, and Todd Balf as other examples of books I find especially satisfying. Essentially, it's a delicious recipe--the imagination to find not-so-obvious connections, excellent reporting and research, and capable and robust prose.

Loathe as I am to reward advertising/publicity-speak, the book's slogan--"Other cities have histories. Los Angeles has legends"--does adequately shorthand a useful attitude about the unruly metropolis of Pueblo de Nuestra SeƱora la Reina de los Angeles, better known as L.A. Buntin has latched onto and burnished the stories of two polar characters to propel his account of mid-century Los Angeles: William Parker, late of Deadwood, S.D., who becomes the L.A.P.D. chief and Brooklyn transplant Mickey Cohen, who becomes the town's regnant mobster. Though each is more than capable of carrying the story, framing the narrative as a kind of cage match leavens it with a healthy dose of dramatic tension.

Not surprisingly, Buntin's book is not the final word on Los Angeles--as you can see below, there is actually a bus tour of sites mentioned in L.A. Noir. Brilliant!
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