Friday, June 26, 2015

TRUE DETECTIVE 2: A Summer Reading List

"I'm writing about other people's books when I really should be working on my own."

HBO's True Detective made its much-ballyhooed return this week, and sadly, the online kvetching about "the second season slump" has already proliferated like a colony of carpenter ants. Much of the criticism involves TD2 trading the moss-dipped exotica of the Gulf Coast for the overexposed contours of Los Angeles, a city so synonymous with film noir and police procedural that it passed cliche at least 50 years ago. ("We're in familiar territory here," sighed The Guardian after Sunday's premiere.) This has led critics to ooze pulp in calling up the long shadows that TD2 has to walk under: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosely, Charles Willeford, James Ellroy and the "sunshine and noir" excavations of Ross MacDonald and Jefferson T. Parker.

But hey, comparisons aside, can you remember the last TV show that turned so many voyeurs into readers? Neither can we. And if TD's smashing debut season sent a million viewers to the bookstore, library or GoodReads -- "I couldn’t get enough from the episodes alone," confessed L.A. Review of Books critic Jacob Mikanowski, "I wanted to linger" -- the second season has prompted obsessives worldwide to reference works and conjure book lists that might have influenced series auteur Nic Pizzolatto. Now the first episode has aired, we have a good glimpse at the trademark visual bravura, allusive dialogue, disturbing industrialized musical score (to match the season's fictional SoCal city of Vinci, based in part on the L.A. industrial no-man's 'burb known as Vernon) and creepy existentialism that we hope will take a more cohesive form over the next eight episodes. Watching (and loving) the premiere, the Beast thought we'd throw out our own mix of tomes. While not exactly beach ready, they should help scratch the itch while you re-thumb your copy of Akashic's Los Angeles Noir anthologies while waiting for Los Angeles Plays Itself  to arrive from Amazon. Enjoy!

by Ginger Strand
Here's a book that actually might make you lose sleep between obsessing over the meaning of falcon masks and naked multiple-amputee dolls floating in milk. TD2's stunningly gorgeous title sequence -- which we think is superior to last season's (ditto for Leonard Cohen's proto-rap "Nevermind" over last year's creaky murder ballad) -- foreboding shots of winding freeway interchanges, its plot involving a new light-rail line and that exquisitely creepy sequence of a corpse's bizarre winding journey from L.A. to Malibu, the sinister implications of power and corruption are intertwined with the California interstate system. Author Ginger Strand takes on the psychological and social import of America's freeways, which she calls "analogs of cultural psychosis." The book is a strange mix: half history, half lurid true crime. The true crime comes courtesy of the Golden State and a cast of psychopaths who, mostly in the '60s and '70s, used California freeways as picking up and dropping off points for their grisly deeds. Believe us, the twisted garden gnome Erroll Childress has nothing on real-life fiends like Ed Kemper, Randy Kraft and Herbert Mullin. (Kemper and Kraft are particularly disturbing, their M.O.s involving castration, dismemberment, torture and necrophilia.) But it's the winding, ominous, soulless interstate that is the main character for Strand very much in the same way it is for Pizzolatto. (Fun fact: Pizzolatto's first novel was called Galveston, a city located on the south end of the I-45 highway corridor from Houston; dubbed the "Texas Killing Fields," the corridor is a popular body-dumping ground where the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas once roamed.)

by Charles P. Hobbs
The key term here is "Hidden History." Hobbs, a librarian with a termite's talent for digging into little-known corners of the city's transportation history yields this fascinating narrative about LA-LA land's obsession with building the better people-mover. There's the triumphs: The Vincent Thomas Bridge; Clarence Belinn's Los Angeles Airways (a fleet of helicopters that shuttled more than two million commuters from LAX to downtown) and Horace Dobbins' elevated California Cycleway in the San Gabriel Valley. There's also the epic fails: The numerous plots to turn the L.A. River into a massive carpool lane; the Simpsons-esque attempt at a propeller-driven monorail; the plans for an elevated people-mover on Bunker Hill, a diamond lane for the Santa Monica Freeway and a commuter rail-line between L.A. and Oxnard. There's tales of private transportation dynasties like The Carsons, The Landliers and the Kadletz Brothers, whose Pink Buses shepherded Orange County teenagers to the beach while soothing them with blasts of '70s rock. Our fave chapter is on an obscure African-American doctor named Thomas D. Matthews, who in the '60s and '70s attempted to start a Blue and White bus line that would serve the residents of Watts, who with the death of the Red Cars had been essentially abandoned in their own neighborhoods and cut off from the rest of the city.

by Thomas Pynchon
Already referenced a year ago when Pizzolatto made his famous comment about Season 2 taking on "the secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system," Pynchon's breezy slapstick comedy has sinister underpinnings when the protagonist discovers a bugle-like hieroglyphic that leads to dueling secret underground versions of the U.S. postal service. A harbringer of the deep internet or even deep cable, wethinks.

by Mark Arax & Rick Wartzman
Two reporters resolve themselves to investigate one of the Central Valley's most enigmatic (i.e., "press-shy") power brokers, a rancher named James Griffin Boswell III who controls more terra firma and water rights than any land baron in the West. While there are no grotesque murders, the book seeps into your pores as a treatise on the hidden power, exploitation and human cost behind the Central Valley's multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. After reading, you may drive up the I-5 past the cabbage and bean fields of the Central Valley and think more of giant shiny skyscrapers or soulless business parks.

by James McMichael
Whaaaaat? A book-length epic poem about real estate in Pasadena? Turns out, Nic Pizzolatto filmed a lot of scenes for TD2 in Pasadena. McMichael's widescreen lens and holistic treatment of the SoCal landscape is the next best thing to Justin Lin's helicopter shots in TD2. You can read an excerpt here.

ed. by Gayle Wattawa
ed. by Stan Yogi
These two Literary anthologies of byways and highways that lead to under-represented aspects of the California Dream, in places like Perris, Gilroy, Modesto, Riverside and Fresno. A healthy collection of diverse writers are represented including Raymond Chandler, Mike Davis, Joan Didion, Erle Stanley Gardner, Juan Felipe Herrera, Norman Mailer, Frank Norris, Richard Rodriguez, Gary Snyder, Gary Soto, William Saroyan, Eric Schlosser, John Steinbeck and Susan Straight. Not too shabby.

by Zachary Lazar
Of course, no noirish autopsy of SoCal can be complete without the cult angle. In TD2, the Malibu New Age retreat led by a remarkably unsentimental guru (David Morse) seems pretty benign -- more akin to Big Sur's Esalen Institute or Malibu's Self-Realization Fellowship. In Sway, author Lazar transports us back to the late 1960s for a terse and trippy novel about lost souls drifting down the West Coast like zombie fugitives stumbling towards the golden light. ("There was nowhere left to go...It was a dead world," one of the protagonists thinks in Rust Cohle tones, "There was no point in pretending it wasn't.") This time, the golden light comes in the shape of an elfin, quasi-hippie con artist named Charles Milles Manson.

by Paul Young
This will satisfy the salacious and bizarre aspects of your "pulp genre" jones. You want myths, urban legends and tall tales? You got 'em. Author Young (with whom, in full disclosure, the Beast used to work back in the '90s at a magazine called BUZZ) compiles some doozies: The secret Nazi compound in Malibu, the opium dens of Chinatown, the treasure buried in the Watts Towers, the underground tunnels under downtown, the lake 15 miles west of the desert town of Lancaster that allegedly contains a passageway to Hades. There's also plenty of dish for celebrity-dirt wranglers; The UFO that spoke to Dennis Hopper, the porno that Babs Streisand might have done, the penis that Jamie Lee Curtis might be hiding and the the gerbil that Richard Gere...well, let's just stop here.

by Kem Nunn
You might get a nosebleed from this one. Nunn's classic mindfuck of a novel begins as a sort of a surfing Bildungsroman and then goes way dark and way, WAY whacked out. Drug-fueled Orgies! Satanic cults! Human sacrifices by the sea! Sort of a mashup of TD1 and TD2 for those who like the setting of the latter but like the secret-cult aspect of the former. (Fun fact: With David "Deadwood" Milch, Nunn was one of the co-creators of the ill-fated HBO drama John from Cincinnati, which attempted to mix mysticism and magical realism with the SoCal surfing culture.)

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thanks for the insight. ND