L.A. Breakdown is less a literary tour de force than a promising writer’s act of ethnography and paean to the rubber-burning crowd that Mathews, a former car mechanic and street racer, hung out with in his youth. Above all, it is a lively read. Like Shaky Town, it took decades to get published. Mathews, a fourth-generation Angeleno, began writing it in 1972 while he was a junior at UC Santa Cruz. A first draft wasn’t completed until 1978. Simon & Schuster’s Michael Korda indicated publishing interest if Mathews would revise according to his suggestions. Mathews declined. It wasn’t until 1999 that a small British publisher brought it out in print, then disappeared, but not before the Los Angeles Times crowned it a book of the year. Tiger Van Books, the small L.A. imprint also responsible for Shaky Town, has now reissued L.A. Breakdown.
Today’s street racers have the $6.6 billion–grossing, 10-film Fast & Furious franchise to inspire their play dates in what has become a deadly, illegal sport on a global scale. L.A. Breakdown chronicles a long-lost, more benign time, when kids hung out at drive-ins eating hamburgers and fries, car culture ruled rather than enslaved, and young men held high-octane hopes that street racing could provide escape from otherwise banal fates. Fortunately for them, engines could still be maintained with basic tools and a high school education. For these kids, career counseling came on matchbook covers. This planet of the guys is divided into Legends, 17-year-old drivers known by their cars, and Squirrels, 30-year-old wannabes, “sad, wavering boys, beer buyers for the crowd.”
The main character is Fat Charlie, navigating that liminal span between high school and whatever comes instead of college, a path shadowed by the Vietnam War. Charlie knows he doesn’t want to be a Squirrel, but he’s not a good-enough racer to be a Legend. So he makes himself useful as a middleman: organizing races, handling bets, and raconteuring.
Then there’s Vaca, a “reverse dwarf” due to a spine-crushing low-tide dive off the Santa Monica Pier (such senseless tragedies plague these characters’ lives). His limbs are normal, but his trunk is shortened, and he’s paralyzed from the waist down. His racing dreams are funded by a medical malpractice settlement. He can’t drive his custom-built Ford, but he can hire Brody, a true Legend, to do it for him. It’s Reinhard who has the fastest car in Los Angeles, a ’58 Chevy, and is the one Vaca is determined to beat. So determined, in fact, that he obsessively sets out to lose 500 pounds from his Ford to gain a half-second of speed in a quarter-mile race.
After pursuing a multitude of intricate ways in which this can be done, Vaca commissions one final extravagance, a fiberglass front. But it comes without installation instructions, something Vaca and Brody have to figure out on their own. Even a mountain of settlement money doesn’t make things easier for these knuckleheads.
Vaca’s life is otherwise empty. He was a Nothing, going nowhere, before his accident, and not all that much has changed since. Whether he’s slapping Brody around to make a point or a punch line, or shaking a beer before handing it to a would-be pal, he runs on rage backed by a mean spirit.
It’s no surprise that street racing itself is presented in all its seductive pleasures. Sailing on 25- cents-a-gallon gas, a racing flotilla rides in formation to matchups at Hansen Dam or a Pacoima gravel pit. For his part, Charlie enjoyed the smells—“the raw odors of gas, oil baking on exhaust pipes, and hot rubber.” This is a tough, toxic world where bleach is poured on the pavement for cars to spin through the slicks, making “choking white smoke” while cleaning the tires and warming them for better traction.
Races get off to orgasmic starts: “Smoke billowed from the tires, and the waver in the roar ceased as they took off, becoming sharper and sharper until the note broke with their first simultaneous shifts.” For another deafening race, “each car punctuat[ed] the solid roar of a high idle with tight winging revs, the flames beneath the cars ceasing at the instant the throttles opened and then shooting down even further, washing out to the sides.” What to outsiders might be considered horrific soundscapes continue to be painted in poetic detail: “The garage exploded in noise. After the first burst, shaking the walls, the exhaust note settled into an unwavering idle—a tight, thrumming bass sound, achingly loud in the confines.”
When Brody drives Vaca’s Ford, “[i]t idle[s] at a roar with a whistling, keening note.” Vaca takes as much pleasure in the sound of his car engine as a new dad might in a firstborn: “Shutting the engine off was hard—it made him feel hollow.” Even the mishaps have a musical overtone: “there was a bang, a chinking whine sounding like a fork tossed in a blender, and then the heavy flop of a tire kicking around.” Such dear and close observations helped me to better understand racing geeks, if not like them more.
Charlie’s high school friend Connie chides him for taking racing too seriously. “It was the life,” he responds in an interior monologue. “You were in the life or you weren’t. If you were, there was nothing to talk about. If you weren’t, there was nothing to talk about.”
With an angry ex-wife and a creepy former child star dogging him to sell his car, Reinhard gives a half-minute consideration to getting out of the life. He eventually decides that the crowd needs his hero self to survive.
Until the final match, the action is fairly tame. Mathews doesn’t rely on extreme violence to raise the stakes or build tension. When a race is over, everyone pretty much gets to enjoy themselves with a beer and some rough humor. Charlie hangs out after a race with the others “until [the crowd breaks] up, savoring the closeness and good feeling among the racers. Races were rerun with much hand motion and embellishment.” Such scenes lend more authenticity to the action than a hothouse crop of crashes and conflicts might.
Less understandable and not as fully fleshed out as the cars and their drivers are the novel’s women. This is surprising considering the lovingly rendered women of Shaky Town, culminating in the first-person voice of Dulcie, a Chicana teen trying to save her jailed boyfriend.
In L.A. Breakdown, the woman we learn most about is Connie, who lives at home, got canned from the phone company, cracks wise, smokes, toys with men, and also lets them beat her. Her brother Richie wails on her, and she stays with abusive boyfriend Mickey, she tells us, rather than have Richie “kick his ass.” She tells Charlie she’s smarter than Mickey, and he beats her when she lets him know it. She sticks with him despite this because, she says, “he knows me inside out.” But what is there really to know? Connie seems a riddle even to herself, an altruistic female running low on survival instinct. She’s most hapless when she gets pregnant. When she names the baby after Richie, my sympathy is for the baby.
I also wanted to know more about Charlie’s story. For the first half of the book, I was wondering where he lived and what he did for work. By the second half, we are told he has his own apartment and a dead-end job at a gas station. We know nothing of his family and learn much more about minor characters like Lamont, who leaves early on for the army but comes back for a brutal holiday confrontation with his stepdad. As a result, he lands on Charlie’s couch, and the two decide to spend New Year’s Eve drinking while waiting on the street for Pasadena’s Rose Parade. For amusement, Lamont blows up the Plymouth his stepdad ruined driving while he was away. Hungover, they leave when the actual parade begins.
After witnessing Connie hooking up with lowlife Vaca, Charlie pursues an older woman, a 24-year-old divorced waitress named Donna. Things go swell until the promise of a brighter future takes her off to Phoenix to waitress and live with her mother. But their brief relationship has matured Charlie. Now he’s ready for a navy stint and marriage to the pregnant Connie. By the book’s end, he’s on an aircraft carrier as he writes his wife, the new mom, close to “that place that I thought would be like Hawaii.” He assures her it’s not. If he survives, he’ll exit with a trade as a mechanic.
Before he takes his leave, there’s the big race and its tragic end. Vaca is left a howling banshee beaten into submission in the back of a cop car.
L.A. Breakdown is a fine historic document and a rollicking illustration of the race its author has won in the decades between books. I still loathe street racers—but admire Lou Mathews all the more. An L.A. writer to be treasured, he’s the kind of hero literary Los Angeles needs in order to survive.
Nancy Spiller is the Los Angeles–based author of Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (With Recipes) (Counterpoint, 2009) and Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned from My Mother’s Recipe Box (Counterpoint, 2013).