At about the same time Didion was settling into a home in Malibu and writing about our notorious Santa Ana winds, Luis J. Rodriguez was joining a street gang. Rodriguez’s memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” is set in the gritty suburban sprawl of the San Gabriel Valley. It is an epic tale of family, brotherly love, prejudice, drive-by shootings and the everyday pleasures of a neighborhood where there are still open fields, swimming holes and other reminders of a recent rural past. Rodriguez gives us something we rarely see in movies set in Los Angeles: the richness and drama of its working-class life.
So does another San Gabriel Valley work: “Curse of the Starving Class,” the 1977 play by Sam Shepard about a family living on an avocado farm, with a freeway nearby. A few literary decades later, you’ll find the same landscape filling in with food stands selling menudo in Salvador Plascencia’s experimental 2005 novel, “The People of Paper.” And finally, the San Gabriel Valley becomes the surreal stage of the stories in Carribean Fragoza’s excellent 2021 collection, “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You.”
Where can I get out of my car and walk through some of L.A.’s literary history?
Begin at downtown’s Grand Central Market, at its western entrance. To your left, you’ll see the funicular Angels Flight, which gives its name to a detective novel by the immensely popular Michael Connelly. Angels Flight will take you up to Bunker Hill, the setting of many an L.A. novel from the mid-20th century. “Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town,” the noir master Raymond Chandler wrote, long before the neighborhood’s old rooming houses were demolished.
I love this spot because it’s the closest I can get to John Fante’s “Ask the Dust,” my favorite Los Angeles novel. Fante set most of “Ask the Dust” on Bunker Hill and in the downtown streets below, where his protagonist, Arturo Bandini, meets his love interest, the Mexican waitress Camilla. And here, in the office building above the market, Bandini buys a marijuana cigarette from a friend who hides his stash in a compartment inside his wooden leg.
Didn’t William Faulkner live in Los Angeles?
Faulkner came to Los Angeles to write screenplays. He famously called it (and I paraphrase here) the plastic anus of the world. One of his favorite hangouts can be found just two blocks from Grand Central Market: the stunning (and decidedly non-plastic) Gallery Bar at the Biltmore Hotel. Continuing on my walking tour, you’ll find a park facing the Biltmore: Pershing Square, which features in John Rechy’s pioneering novel about gay life “City of Night.”