“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum

“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews

Why the fantastical literature that's peculiar to Los Angeles is the only American fiction worth reading.
By Alan Rifkin

THE VISION COMES AND GOES. You can still picture, if only barely, Evelyn Waugh arriving back when not everything here had been named yet, and seeing the double meanings laid so bare--oasis and dust, paradise and exile--that he finished a novel in 10 weeks ("The Loved One," his sendup of an immortality-crazed mortuary) after it had taken him three years to write the one before.

Of course the ironies have gotten a bit gentrified since then. They've been coming true and becoming familiar at the same time--growing up.

This happened fast, because it was only a couple of decades ago that writers growing up in L.A. could detect at least the tail wind of Waugh's delirium--that flickering state between the dreams and the bleached bones of the dreamers, not to mention the bleached bones of satirists from back East ... that awareness of standing on our own graves. And I know this gets hazy. But in the California youth that I'm remembering, mostly Valley in my case, mostly '60s, you could tan and pretend there would never be cancers, or write about people who did. ("The goddess of the coast and the germ of a bag lady," as I once described a character.) You could make up histories out of place names, before the last figments vanished from the highway. You could wager everything on madness, like Pascal, because madness might be a latter-day prophecy. Or some kind of R.D. Laing exercise in going sane. There were rumors, of course, that madness wasn't really sane at all. But you weren't sure of this yet in Los Angeles.

We were going to be ageless, find the Garden, reinvent brotherhood (or show where it had been lost).

At the same time we knew, like Waugh, that we were dreaming. And this reality disorder has been the starting point, the given, for an entire generation of local novelists--"In Los Angeles, it is always the first generation," Kate Braverman once said--a group too quiet, too neglected, to consider itself a literary movement, except maybe in its secret fantasies. But that is where some neglect can begin to pay off.

For decades, L.A. has been pulling a certain type of writer away from realistic fiction toward something no one ever bothered to name, something that has slipped right through the genres of the outside world. Anyone can recite a short list of variously hallucinatory L.A. visions from the 20th century, by Nathanael West and John Fante and Joan Didion and Carolyn See. They were a recurring dream that shook the bed once or twice each generation, like little earthquakes. But the last several years have seen dozens- -heralding either a crescendo or a death throe, or maybe The Big One.

Not that the writers themselves get too animated about all this, except in private. It can just seem so personal. The gorgeous estrangement. The flakiness, the longing. The possibly delusional belief that the conflicts most central to the human condition-- truth and illusion, spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, race and community--are reaching endgame mainly here.

Last spring at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books I met Francesca Lia Block, whose dozen-plus metamorphic novels since the mid-1980s, including the popular Weetzie Bat oeuvre, have been turning Hollywood's fallen angels into something like pagan myth. An hour's worth of fans had lined up for her autograph, but unless she was lying, the highlight of her day was getting to bond over the making of an L.A. fabulist--in her case, a childhood steeped in Greek mythology and Melrose Avenue. She talked about how orphaned she'd felt when punk monogamists John Doe and Exene split up, and how she didn't break through to her own brand of hallucinogenic fairy tale (I think her novels are Young Adult; they're also seriously horny) until she'd gone away to Berkeley, and her father was dying, and she yearned for a Hollywood lullaby. There seemed something almost stubbornly vulnerable about the proposition she'd kept staking her career on. ("How can I tell you this without sounding too crazy, too West Coast?" she told the New York Times. "I believe life is infused with magic.") Yet all her success had streamed from this quintessential L.A. foolishness: writing as if no young generation elsewhere had really been young.

Then there's Steve Erickson, whom even those who love him struggle to get, but I get him, because he keeps writing the serial dreams of my Valley childhood: moon bridges, sand dunes, secret portals to Forever. Not that he trusted these visions right away. First he had to write five unpublished novels. "The whole activity," he told me once, "in the eyes of people I knew, and maybe even my own, began to seem a little insane"--a word that in Erickson's mouth has the hiss of someone spotting a nemesis across the room. He finally began "Days Between Stations" when he felt "there was nothing to lose, and therefore I could allow myself to bury L.A. under a sandstorm."

It's a literature that can seem like tag-team dreaming. After Didion's freeway dissociation ("Play It As It Lays") came Carolyn See's post-apocalypse Topanga ("Golden Days," in which Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger blow up the world, but true Angelenos, through prosperity-consciousness and pluck, laugh last). Then Block pursued the Shangri-L.A. of outcasts, with wish-fulfillments plopping down like houses from Oz: "I know it's a little weird," shrugs My Secret Agent Lover Man when he introduces himself by that name to teenage Weetzie Bat. Their offspring, by two fathers if anyone's counting, is named Cherokee--"a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons."

Followed by inland dreamers on the wrong side of the Rapture (Susan Straight's stories turn Riverside into the mythical town of Rio Seco, which means dry river), and border crossings in which all the meridians start to blur (in Salvador Plascencia's "The People of Paper," the town of El Monte slides exactly 10 inches a year toward Mexico), and interrupted preppies wandering across a surrealist wasteland (one Aimee Bender protagonist listens a long time for a message from a burning bush before deriving that, in this age, it's her turn to talk).

Or maybe it's a literature on the edge of mental illness, unless that's redundant--madness as the primal seat of poetry. In this light, fabulism is arguably the truest form of art, and Los Angeles its perfect subject, if for no better reason than the absence of any psychic safety net, the way that tolerance and indifference blur into one thing--serving itself up to each newcomer's desire, meeting each of us at our level of childhood grief. In this setting, a certain kind of existential orphan might dream, I don't know, Block's dream: of dual citizenship in a secret tribe of angels, of having time to outlast logic and facts.

"Can we get past plot, already?" asks Martha Sherrill, a native storyteller half-seriously protesting her new East Coast writer crowd. She invented a starlet for an Esquire cover story--a magical- realist hoax--then turned it into the novel "My Last Movie Star."

Only in Los Angeles would so many novels, from West's "The Day of the Locust" to Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers," begin in realism and veer to something like biblical extra innings. ("[Expletive] L.A., man," says Stone's Nietzschean protagonist, "go out for a Sunday spin, you're a short hair from the dawn of creation.") Only here do stories like Hillary Johnson's "Diary of a Female Rapist"--in which death by bored strangulation sex leads only to more sylvan purgatory- -make sense. But then, only here would a nudist Strangelove like Charles Richter rule earthquake science, or would astronomer Fritz Zwicky propose firing bombshells above Mt. Palomar, to clear the sky. Or would Kerry Sieh, the evangelical Christian who discovered the rhythm of great quakes on the San Andreas Fault, tell me, among buzzing flies on the desert edge of what once was the Pacific Ocean, that he had given up believing in God.

In fact, when I moved south to be a family man in Long Beach, where reality was so plain it was as if I'd just had corneal surgery, I started going to church--relieved to stop reinventing the language of religion from the desert floor up. But I knew I'd lost something too. I wanted to be unmoored again--I wanted to give up God to resume the quest for Him. Like Block exiled to Berkeley, I started a novella that grew out of L.A. memories--of bottle glass, tile chips, sagebrush in the hard mud of Malibu. After that came the novel I'm still trying to finish, which arrived as the vision of a fasting man's pantry in 1940s Sherman Oaks. Carolyn See, riffing on what she says is a notion from Orthodox Judaism--and giving it a sort of Caltrans spin--told me recently that she loosely believes Los Angeles to be one of the "12 exits to heaven." I must have been thinking that too. What I wanted was for my protagonist's pantry to have all these brand names that may never have existed, because if I could have named them, the secret offramp would have closed, the pantry would merely have been real. And then I couldn't have written.

All fiction is at some level dreamy, or it wouldn't be fiction. And the recent novels from the bizarro, alternate L.A. aren't the most masterful fiction in the world. But they're the only American fiction that always looks beyond life's veil--to me the only fiction that's really worth reading.

Sometimes when I go to bookstores--where the first thing apparent is that our culture writes much too much and needs to shut up, needs some fundamentalist-futurist Ministry of Thought to cut us back to two or three nice books a year--I try works by Richard Russo or Vikram Seth or Annie Dillard, skilled outsiders, realists. The characters and manners are rendered deftly, the circle of life full and complete. But that's the problem. For all their storytelling, they only corroborate the veil of the senses. You feel reassured by them, or you should, but five minutes later, you smell a rat. Because who says the circle of life should be trusted?

And if you've surrendered, somewhere in the course of an L.A. childhood, to distrusting what the rest of the country deems familiar, the distrust becomes what's familiar, the local strangeness reassuring.

So I read Joy Nicholson's "The Road to Esmeralda," in which an L.A. writer, haunted by his chicken-hawk dad from Yucca Valley, flees with his girlfriend into Mexican doom, post-Sept. 11. While not actually bending the laws of physics--delirium in the jungle is so real it's practically ordinary--this book is prophetic: It chases the vanishing L.A. dream straight out of L.A., finding no corner of the world unspoiled, no innocence left.

Or I read Erickson's "Our Ecstatic Days," in which the portal to history, conscience and maternal memory is a black L.A. lake that fills the lower floors of the Hotel of the Thirteen Losses, whose hallways are sailed by a doctor learning to specialize in buildings that are dying of grief. When a mom dives into the vortex to recover her lost son, her voice becomes a river of type that bisects each of the next 231 pages, then rejoins the text when she's back, sucking air--a typographical stunt so exacting that, rather than try to replicate it, Simon & Schuster opted to publish a jpeg of the author's original manuscript.

Or I wait for Carolyn See's upcoming novel about Los Angeles circa 2005-2015, originally titled "Slipstream"--which word, she didn't know, doubles as a synonym for magical realism. But coincidence is so common around this literature, you start to expect it.

Francesca Lia Block's "Necklace of Kisses," which, somewhat chancily, picks up Weetzie Bat in her punkette 40s, feels unintentionally sad in its denial of aging. But I understand the soul-starved core. Mourning a marriage whose courage has shrunk after Sept. 11, the heroine channels lost youth by making out with mermaids at a pink hotel.

If you include writers with one foot in fantasy/sci-fi--if your L.A. vision leans toward time travelers and mermen with vestigial gills--the list becomes a catalog: Octavia Butler, Kem Nunn, James Blaylock, Scott Bradfield, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robinson, and all the descendants of Philip K. Dick.

Sometimes this L.A. literature jumps the ropes of literature itself. In film it's Robert Towne, the L.A. writer's successful half- brother in Hollywood, finally directing his version of John Fante's "Ask the Dust," whose desert-grave epiphany you could see trying to happen in Towne's script for "Chinatown." It took him 30 years to get the backing. ("Some pictures are jobs," he told Variety, "but others become obsessions.") And the urban theorist Norman Klein, who in another metropolis might set off a manhunt with nets, is not only at work on a "cinematic database novel" but also leads "anti-tours" of the city's "erasures" (lost pasts) and "social imaginaries"-- such as trucked-in Victorian homes that create a "collective memory of an event or place that never occurred but is built anyway."

Even a New York Times op-ed by Bruce Wagner--whose screenplays and novels of decadent Hollywood have drawn comparisons to both Charles Dickens and William Burroughs--began with mayoral politics and wound up staring at blackened hills:

. . . and as I am writing this I am even forgetting who [Jim Hahn] is and I am trying to remember who Antonio Villaraigosa is--I keep giving him the name "Vargas" in my mind, like the illustrator who used to do those pin-up paintings for Playboy, Alberto Vargas-- but now I am remembering that he's the new mayor, I either dreamed that or it's true, and all any of us can do is hope that he will do something terrible or scandalous or flat-out crazy so we may always remember who he is and not think we are seeing his picture in a group photo in "The Shining" or starting to read about him in a newspaper that no longer exists and is crumbling in our hands before we can even finish.

The miracle being, perhaps, that an editor at the New York Times understood the twisted reality behind those lines. Or pretended to, in the spirit of bicoastalism. Or caught on that a story was breaking out West that might not be understood until it was too late in the Eastern news day to report it. There's about that much connection left between Los Angeles and the hapless, but commercially attentive, outer world: They get that we're closer than they are to the vortex.

Which isn't to say that visionary writing never happens back there. You hear sometimes of people in New York City who've dreamed. Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist" created a world of elevator maintenance that merged into the metaphysics of race and ascendance. Bernard Malamud concocted a talking Jewbird, and Paul Auster wrote about a vaudevillian runaway learning to levitate. I also think I see a parallel in Ben Katchor's "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" cartoons: the dream-time back alleys, the almost plausible wholesale signage (Mortal Coil Mattresses), the vaguely theosophical insomnia clubs, with marathon lectures and fluorescent lights up bright.

But the origin of those dreams always turns out to be some fixed point in the definable past: the industrial age, the melting pot, the gothic South. Those writers don't actually step outside time. They don't gaze into eternity for a living--although the Mojave wind may shift in their direction from time to time. "But what is the meaning of this?" John Cheever asked in his diary, freaking out while writing "The Swimmer" (a 1964 short story that some MR fans claim as magical realist). "One does not grow old in the space of an afternoon. Oh, well, kick it around."

Martha Sherrill says that at one New England party, after Time magazine called her novel magical realist, she was told never to use "those two words" together in a sentence. "It's a missing hormone, more than a place, I think," she says of L.A. "A part of me, a chemical."

"The only [other] place I can imagine it happening in this country is in the South," says Erickson. "Because in a way you could argue that the novels of Faulkner provided a basis for the fabulism that came out of South America. That whole idea of a mythical county, with mythical people. The stories aren't fabulous, but there's certainly enough psychosis in them to push them into the realm of the surreal.... I just think that cities like New York or Chicago are too impenetrable to allow for the kind of breakdown that makes for fabulism. There's something about the porousness of L.A.'s identity."

Erickson's own dance with New York publishers hints at the divide. "They'll call my agent and ask when another book's coming. And when it comes, they'll say, 'Oh. Well. We didn't know he was going to do that.' "

It's not enough to say that L.A. writers have a taste for the apocalypse. Carolyn See still writes the end of the world, but mostly to think happy thoughts--she excises the Judgment from the end. Maritta Wolff's recently published 1972 time capsule, "Sudden Rain" (recovered, according to the book's PR, from the late author's icebox), had been more jeremiad: The only principled character watches from the ocean as Malibu Canyon ignites. Likewise Didion's modern Babylon, in which the ramifications of adulteries and abortions would not be bribed quiet by the California dream. If these '70s writers were more open about the dream's underside than their literary heirs have been--a generation possibly unwilling, in the midst of the culture wars, to give comfort to religious moralizers--you've got to wonder if Armageddon is really passe or just on hold. In either case, it has lost a lot of its bang.

What's unique here is as near as Salvador Plascencia's mythic curanderos and lettuce pickers in El Monte, and Norman Klein's "erasures" of neighborhoods that may or may not have been, and Ry Cooder's aural ghosts of Chavez Ravine. The civic foreground crumbles. The dirt lots bloom. Playwright Jose Rivera, in "Cloud Tectonics," posited a Mexican hitchhiker who's been pregnant for two years. "The Anglo mind," says Rafael Luevano, who teaches religion at Chapman University in Orange, "might be giving way to the Latino influence of magic, myth and symbol."

"The stories my grandparents told me," explains Plascencia, "were like Steinbeck, but with magic and witches."

Whether Latino or not, our literary visions are sometimes incestuously provincial--a pidgin of images that couldn't have been composed anyplace else. Joy Nicholson says she hosted foreign guests at her Silver Lake apartment, first-time visitors who marveled from the picture window: "It's so ugly! It's so beautiful!" (They also refused bus directions to the Getty Museum--"We'll just walk"--a visual that could inspire a jungle novel all its own.) Ugly beauty is why L.A.'s fabulist literature, although better than the rest of the country's, will never be the country's, unless L.A.'s death- wish strangeness fades out first. Here, when Francesca Lia Block confronts oleanders, they "look like cigarette cherries," and an anorexic character has "hip bones like part of an animal skull." Here, Kate Braverman's junkies accuse the surf with their tears and the waves grow spines, and beauty and loss are inseparable, as every Angeleno knows they are. Nicholson describes in an e-mail how she used to walk into the desert after dark, calling death's hand:

I'd heard there were bikers and killers and freaks there, and I wondered if they would find me, and if I might come to a bad end with them . . . I just wanted to know if I would snap out of my numbness. . . . (Obviously I wanted my father to rescue me--so I put myself in the "driest, worst desert" again and again--to see if he would come through. I guess maybe I was waiting for an Oasis to come to me.)

For me, it was always man-made lakes--starting with the guitar- shaped pond in Encino behind the mystical Thriftimart "T." But I'm not alone there either. Joan Didion invoked the same location in "Play It As It Lays." Erickson's new book has made our improbable lakes the very image of breaking through to the other side, and when my new protagonist swoons for lost paradise, he swoons lakeside. He swoons thinking about rounding a certain bend on Mulholland Drive, where time peels away, leaving in its place one of those fenced, forbidden vistas--a cobalt blue reservoir in the lap of a canyon a half-mile across. Wholeness, temptation and loss, in a single glance. He swoons because alongside the Encino reservoir, the hills seem to stare directly into Utah, and because even when living in L.A. you long for it a little, as if it can never be your city altogether.

Of course, if you're a writer who depends on staring into Utah from Encino, you get used to some uneven results. What you don't expect is to keep bumping into other writers in their sleeping gowns. You don't expect to keep finishing each other's dreams. In the first short story I ever sold, a young heir to a swimming-pool business gets lost in Death Valley looking for a chapter president of the Lainie Kazan Fan Club. In Block's first book, from about the same time, a young guy stumbles upon a covenly chapter of the Jayne Mansfield Fan Club. In Sherrill's first novel, after a car crash in the desert, a reporter stumbles upon the ghosts of film stars at a hotel pool; in Plascencia's, a lettuce picker has his way with Rita Hayworth.

Several of these L.A. writers, I should mention, are more or less friends. I solicited a book blurb from Erickson because he's my hero, and from Sherrill, whom I knew from UCLA and who had the same favorite movie no one else could stand: Harold Pinter's surrealist adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon." (It ends in whiteness--a soundstage mirage.)

Stephen Cooper, who wrote the newly reissued biography of John Fante, "Full of Life," was briefly my graduate professor at Cal State Long Beach, and as I was writing this essay he coined a name for this new school of writing: Southern California Dream Realism. So I talked him into driving with me to the desert. I had two reasons: I wanted to chase the ghost of Fante's Arturo Bandini to the spot where he lost his Mayan Princess, and I wanted to talk about Fante's themes generally.

Every Los Angeles writer at the outskirts of vision feels a connection to "Ask the Dust," the 1939 novel that, more than any other, seems to weep over this city's corpse in the ecstasy of possessing it. ("Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.") Claremont McKenna professor Jay Martin has pointed out that what W.H. Auden called "West's Disease"--an L.A. collision of foolishness, desire and illusion named after Nathanael West--could just as well have been named after Fante. In any case, we all are sufferers. We're not sure, exactly, how the intimacy of our suffering will survive the novel's journey to the screen, to the masses, to the world. But for a while longer, it's strictly ours.

Cooper's history with "Ask the Dust" is even more proprietary, but it's also personal. "I was seeking to fill that absence that I didn't even consciously know defined me," he says. "And that was the loss of my father. So I would spend my days just mooning around, moving about, like most young writers, haunted by characters, trying to compose them and failing, failing, failing, failing, failing. . . . And then when I came upon 'Ask the Dust,' it was a time in my life when I was living with every pore open to possibility."

Living, in other words, like Bandini himself, who finally writes his look-at-me novel, only to hurl it to the sands where his goddess went mad. "He's gotten what he wanted, in terms of having written the book . . . to be on the shelf next to the big guys. But desire is such that it outlives its fulfillment. And so he must desire something else. . . . It turns to dust, doesn't it, the fulfillment of desire. So getting what you want is, if you will, just a beginning of the eternal and unattainable story of desire."

The ethnic tension between Fante's lovers (an Italian and a Latina) was exquisite too, and Fante tried to turn up the heat under the L.A. melting pot in an unfinished novel titled "The Little Brown Brothers," full of romantic impossibility in, among other places, a Wilmington cannery. But editors, Cooper says, misread the work as racist, and it was shelved.

"So we don't know how he would have worked this out. John knew how to cuss people out, but everything he wrote proves that he was doing his best to negotiate this core aspect of our culture. In fact, the only person I ever showed 'The Little Brown Brothers' to-- because I'm such a Boy Scout about all this--is Philippe Garnier, who translated 'Ask the Dust' into French. And Philippe said, 'Oh, thees must be published!'

"Now I'm thinking," Cooper proposes, "what if X number of your visionary writers--I'm just riffing now--but what if Steve Erickson read these hundred pages? What if, name your 10 writers, they could respond however they wanted to? What if 60 years later, a group of writers read this and--not to finish it, but to take up the vision however they wanted to?" I ask if the tensions in the book still read fresh today.

"Well, yeah. As fresh as they will remain until the republic is a cinder."

I tell Cooper it would be interesting to name the issues of our times that even L.A. novelists are afraid to address without fears or dogmas. Nationalism. Religion. Abortion. "It's sure not any longer sex," Cooper says, although sex's omnipresence as distraction from life's issues is becoming an issue all its own.

Joshua Tree when we park is disarmingly still. We climb over some boulders from the dawn of time, throw pebbles across a chasm, hear them strike. It's the kind of emptiness, behind the mirage, that makes you forget what you came for, or what people back in the city are writing for--not a bad place, all in all, to hurl a manuscript.

But minutes later, it happens--one of those desert-vision ruptures of reality. Outside a convenience store in Yucca Valley-- home to Joy Nicholson's war-buff antagonist, graveyard to Robert Stone's dying soldier--beside the monster trucks and SUVs, a half- dozen Marines in camouflage lounge atop an armored jeep, materialized but ghostly. They look a little like the plastic troops from "Toy Story." You can see them with your mind's eye, and you can hit them with a stone, and they move in slo-mo through the liquor- deli traffic. It's like the scene in "The Day of the Locust" in which actors in period costumes improbably collide, or the back-lot earthquake in "The Last Tycoon," with marooned extras, jungle backdrops and schooners interposed "like the torn storybooks of childhood," or the scene in ... well, never mind. Stone or Nicholson would have known what to say about it, and someday maybe one of them will.

For now, though, I'm left, along with my protagonist, still peering into that Sherman Oaks pantry that started me writing. And I don't know if it's the future or the past that pulls me. I don't know if my real home is in the time capsule that L.A.'s early hopes were stowed in, or just outside the capsule's door, in the world that has vanished around it.

Maybe Southern California Dream Realism is just the ultimate extension of anybody else's literary mode--a way of seeing life stripped of time's pretense. It's a manner of always seeing the terminal desert from the depths of the paradise dream, or paradise from the stretches of life's dry march.

I do know that in our past, in the dark of that pantry, I see the East Coast. Some remnant of ancestry, a quaint hope of continuity, a proper burial, but gone wrong--Waugh's mortuary. I see how fooled my childhood was by every architectural simulation of history.

But I don't know what happens to a civilization, and a literature, that grows up alongside the constant vision of dust. Does the rest of the country even make sense to us here? Was all this aftermath built in from the start? Even the apocalypse, in Los Angeles, feels like history now, the erasures of paradise barely detectable, the age of visions five minutes from over.

That is one scenario for where L.A. literature is heading. Then there is Francesca Lia Block's view, which she offers in an unpunctuated e-mail: "life/death magic/reality young/old spirit/ body masculine/feminine the walls seem to be dissolving and the worlds blending. . . . " In other words, Paradise Next.

I'm torn between these predictions. And so is the fabulist vanguard, from what I can tell. You can feel the conversation splitting--which is why every cultural crescendo is also a death throe. While Erickson's books get ever stranger, for instance, Sherrill's next novel--"The Ruins of California," about a Glendale daughter's helpless love for the charming father who couldn't stay put, and for the California dream that couldn't hold--extinguishes fantasy on the page. Her L.A. is as hallowed as Old Pasadena, and when the book's childhood is closed, it is closed.

I was stuck in traffic on Olympic Boulevard recently, at the last of sundown, heading east through Century City, and I had one of those feelings you get in a city that you now only visit--a city that is no longer the same place where you grew up. The people were strangers. They seemed wealthier and more cosmopolitan, and multinational, and they suffered and sighed separately in their mostly beautiful cars. The cheap apartments I'd once rented near UCLA now cost fortunes, and the sandlot meridians on Little Santa Monica Boulevard were landscaped, and everything porous and unfinished about this place--all the sweet neglect that once paid off in untold ways--had been finally built over. The fact is I will probably never live in Los Angeles proper again, and my fear is that eventually no one here will think much about oasis and dust, paradise and exile.

Sherrill e-mails me in 20-point type: "Sadly, post-apocalyptic L.A. will just have to grow old like everywhere else."

But think of the next, next generation. Think of Salvador Plascencia's El Monte--where the culture recedes and the lost things survive: the gangs and lettuce pickers, and the elements of milk and oranges and moths, cracked radiators, pollen and sunburns, and lovemaking and coil mattresses, and a ghost of Rita Hayworth. If you want dreams, go to the city's edges. Go where orphans and outcasts are.

And it's always, somewhere, Los Angeles in the 1940s. That sunset in the rearview mirror, past the traffic jam: the cherry of a cigarette, an oleander red.

Alan Rifkin is the author of "Signal Hill: Stories" (City Lights Books), a collection of short stories and a novella.