The stories of Ry Cooder are a lot like his music: stately, precise, well constructed; they grab you by the throat, quietly, and never let go.
Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and composer, Ryland Peter Cooder has been making music since the 1960s, but Los Angeles Stories is his first collection of fiction. Spanning the years 1940 to 1958, these stories are not grandiose, intricately plotted, or concerned with formal technique and experimentation. Instead, Cooder emphasizes the small, discreet images of a world that he makes vivid and quite real. Like many of his albums—Chávez Ravine (2005), My Name Is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008) in particular—Los Angeles Stories explores the beauty and sorrow of the Southern California past, focusing on the struggles of the working class against the seemingly inexorable phalanx of industry, finance, government, and progress.
The first thing that stands out is setting. Bunker Hill, The Flats, Little Tokyo, Pershing Square, Ballona Creek, Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno. Cooder recites these names like an incantation, transporting the reader, and perhaps himself, to the scene of the crime. He is highly adept at shaping and sustaining this sense of place and the mood it helps convey. We wouldn’t be surprised if characters from the works of Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, or Tom Waits stepped from the shadows, though it’s clearly John Fante, chronicler of the city’s immigrants and underclass, who’s had the most profound influence on Cooder’s work.
The stories are loosely interconnected, much like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio;David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan;or Life in the Cul-De-Sac by Senji Kuroi. The Japanese call this form a “rensaku shosetsu,” a novel in fragments rather than a set of isolated narratives. The characters and incidents from one story don’t directly intrude upon neighboring selections, but we sense that everyone lives close together and shops at the same bodega.
The characters, like the setting, are exceedingly specific and palpable. The narrator of “La Vida Es un Seuño” goes into great detail to define both:
I live in the great barrio of East Los Angeles, overlooking Hollenbeck Park. My street is one of large, older homes and one small residence hotel, the Edmund, where I have a room with a balcony. Flower boxes, trees, gardens-a bit bohemian, you may say, but not leftist; that milieu lies further north, in Boyle Heights.
In the next sentence, he addresses the people:
There you may find the authors of revolutionary political tracts and those of the poorer class of scholars and professors. My district is favored by the entertainers. Not celebrities, but those who have regular positions like myself. We are not mariachis!
Finally, Cooder assumes the role of ethnomusicologist, defining the mariachi in increasingly fine detail:
Mariachis are hardly more than street beggars! You will find them congregated in Garibaldi Square, on First Street, near the Aliso Flats district, a squalid area. Mariachis are of the mestizo class, specializing in the primitive music of the migrant and the homesick.
After this analysis of where he lives and the people he lives among, the narrator tells us about himself, that he is educated, reads music, that he’s a “Trio man” who must “know the ostinato, crescendo, obbligato." Cooder writes with the precision and depth of an insider but also with the distance and detachment of an outsider, which is why the world he creates is so convincing and why it takes so little effort for the reader to suspend disbelief.
Though extremely individualized, the characters in Los Angeles Stories are made to feel anonymous and interchangeable. The narrator of the first story, “All in a Day’s Work,” walks throughout the city compiling data for the Los Angeles City Directory. He tells us in sentence two, “I am one of many.” This unadorned statement could serve as an epigraph for the book itself. Whether pursued by bosses, gangsters, money-collectors, or the police, Cooder’s people are often trapped in narrow places by labyrinthine systems. They are pawns manipulated by powerful social and economic forces, which Cooder dramatizes with a light touch. One thinks of the great naturalists Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and especially Frank Norris, who examined analogous realities in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
At the end of the story, after being interrogated by homicide detectives, the narrator discusses the system in which he’s been unwittingly caught: “Once they see a pattern, they think they know it all, and they think they got you. That’s not the way life is. Take it from me, life is random and inscrutable….” The poor man, here and elsewhere in Los Angeles Stories, has no volition; he is at the mercy of merciless forces. He might be the victim of capitalism, or it could be mere whimsy, as the narrator claims. In either case, the story ends with the narrator adding his own name to the city directory, becoming, like everyone else, one among many.
Cooder’s prose, like his storytelling more generally, is plain and straightforward, yet captivating:
But I am not one of these. No, I am somewhere in the middle. I am not conocido, but I am not deconocido. My instrument is old, but the maker was respected. Hernando Aviles of Los Panchos once commented that my tone is acceptable. Los Angeles is not Mexico City, but we have many fine nightclubs and restaurants here. It is enough. One must not aim too high.
The cadence, diction, and tone of this passage—as well as the underlying philosophy—is impeccably Hemingwayesque. If the speaker put on a pair of boxing gloves, in fact, or entered a bullring, it wouldn’t seem out of character. We can admire Cooder’s fastidious attention to detail and his modest aim to put one simple, declarative sentence after the other.
Los Angeles Stories is rich with the kind of language and nuance that allows an otherwise unassuming scene to resonate beyond the story’s rather foreshortened geographical margins:
The bartender poured one and sneered at me. “You a checker?” he asked suspiciously.
“He don’t look like a checker,” the woman said. She was missing some of her lower front teeth, so it came out like “shecker.”
“What a goddamn checker look like?” the bartender said.
“He’s got a satchel like they got, but his eyes are bad. He ain’t a checker.”
“What’s a checker?” I asked.
“State liquor board,” said the woman. Aside from her teeth and a slight tremor in one hand, she was not so bad looking.
In vignettes such as this, the characters climb down from their paper barstools and step off the page, assuming larger and more poignant dimensions. The author is able to dramatize the events of ordinary men and women while simultaneously telling the story of their city. Cooder is a passionate historian of Los Angeles, curating its small joys and predilections, its cultural pratfalls and senseless tragedies.
Cooder’s stories unravel slowly, lethargically. He doesn’t rush toward a thematic pay-off but rather allows the narrative to reveal itself at its own pace. The more grand, subtextual concerns creep up suddenly, at the end, as in the works of O’Henry or Somerset Maugham. Los Angeles Stories is an unusual book, old-fashioned but not out of fashion. Its most beautiful quality is the genuine pathos, conveyed with tact and skill, for a city that has vanished, that has always been vanishing. The characters, even while celebrating, exude a sense of mourning for a city that disappears with each step they take on its tarnished streets.
A freelance editor/writer, Andrew J. Khaled Madigan's work has appeared in the North American Review, the Believer, the Antigonish Review, New Haven Review, the Cortland Review, Island, and other periodicals.
Los Angeles Stories
City Lights: October 2011
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-87286-519-8