“L.A.’s a Strange Place”: On Judith Freeman’s “MacArthur Park”

December 2, 2021   •   By Tom Nolan

MacArthur Park

Judith Freeman

THE MERCURIAL NATURE and tenuous persistence over decades of the friendship between two young women, Verna and Jolene, raised in the 1960s in the same rural town in Utah, and their problematic love, at different times, for the same gifted, emotionally isolated man, Vincent, are the threads tying together Judith Freeman’s bracing, engrossing, tough, and tender new novel, MacArthur Park, much of which is set in Los Angeles from 1984 into the present century.

Verna, a late-blooming writer and the narrator of this socially conscious and personally revelatory document, is from a traditional family of modest means; her father sold shoes for a living. Jolene’s adulterous parents were rich: the family manufactured firearms (provoking guilt in the intellectually precocious girl). While adventurous Jolene went to college after high school, conservative Verna stayed home and married a cowboy named Leon. She was happy enough, she thought, until, after 20 years, her husband decided that he’d prefer to be hitched to an ex-rodeo queen. “I told him it was bad enough for a husband to walk out just when you were starting to lose your looks,” Verna writes, “but to leave me for a woman named Pinky? C’mon, I said. That’s the low blow.”

In truth, she feels that “the day Leon left I was freer than I’d ever imagined I’d be.” And in that freedom, she remembers Jolene: her teenage best friend, now an artist of growing repute living two states west, in Los Angeles. Back then, Jolene was a rebel, flouting rules, saying and doing outrageous things. She assured Verna: “We can be anything we want to be. […] We don’t have to be like our parents.” Jolene “had the power to make me feel she was much smarter than I was,” Verna says. “That she had some kind of deeper understanding of the world.” She “produced these sorts of feelings and sensations in me that I simply didn’t know what to do with. […] [U]nder her influence I experienced a sea change in behavior” — smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, testing the boundaries and proprieties of her community.

But when Jolene was especially reckless during a trip to Verna’s aunt’s farm — starting to strike a match in the combustible haybarn — the woman chewed her out in the harshest terms, later telling Verna: “Something’s wrong with that girl. […] I don’t think she’s right in the head.” The girls’ friendship petered out. Shortly after, Verna married, and Jolene went east.

Now, in 1984, faced with another sea change, the 37-year-old Verna contacts Jolene in Los Angeles, asking whether she can stay with her until she finds her own social niche and begins her own “adult” life. A startled Jolene says okay: “You always had guts.” But she warns Verna:

L.A.’s a strange place. […] [I]t’s a very weird city and it takes a long time to feel — I can’t even say to feel at home. […] [I]t takes money to live here. […] It’s a city of cliques and castes and celebrity. […] It can be a really lonely place if you don’t have friends. […] You are where you live — I mean the neighborhood you live in determines a lot[.] […] And the good neighborhoods are so fucking expensive. […] But far be it from me to discourage you.

Jolene, Verna finds on her arrival in Los Angeles, is experiencing her own sea change: divorcing her taciturn composer-musician-PhD candidate husband, Vincent, and planning a move to New York with a new boyfriend, a sculptor. She’s become thinner, edgier, and even more blunt-spoken. “I quickly discovered how little we had in common,” says Verna, especially regarding the art world that Jolene (“I am a radical feminist performance artist who has never given up painting”) now inhabits.

A photographic work by a colleague of Jolene’s has Verna especially flummoxed: the female artist posed nude wearing a large mock phallus. “How could this woman get away with something so outrageous?” asks Verna. “And for what purpose?” Jolene explains:

There was a lot of talk at that time about gender and gender performativity around this idea that males, in assuming their gender identity, were responsible for a similar posture and performativity by embodying their own guise of compensatory hypermasculinity and bravado. So Lynda got this idea that by adopting that big phallus and posing nude […] she could physically and symbolically muddy the discourse and assert our right to control our own image and our sexual and cultural power in a positive way. Got it?

Maybe not.

But Verna takes to L.A. faster than you can say “Carondelet,” the name of the street in the MacArthur Park neighborhood where she finds a courtyard apartment (“a little Spanish villa”) near the dentist’s office where she gets a job. “It was the beginning of the great change in my life,” she comes to see. “[T]he moment when I left behind the world that had fashioned me and instead began to fashion a new one of my own. […] I had found my own private place in the churning city. And from the very beginning it felt exactly right.”

Also welcome is the attention paid her by the abandoned Vincent, who proves to be a much more congenial and compelling (if idiosyncratic) man than the selfish monster described by Jolene. Like Verna, Vincent is 37. “He had no interests except music,” she notes. “And books. […] [T]here was something impenetrable about him. […] [Y]et I saw what a good, honest person he was. […] He never seemed to get upset. […] I came to feel his strong moral center: he was a person who could be trusted.”

Vincent courts her, marries her, moves in with her. He praises her singing, and she comes to share his passion for literature. “You must find something for yourself,” Vincent tells her, “something you wish to do that really engages you.” Slowly, she begins to write: “Stories about the years I worked in a canning factory. […] Stories about my great-grandfather, a horse trader and polygamist […] about the Indian School where I had once worked as a housekeeper. […] I told stories about the past […] [s]tories that […] came out of the way I had been raised.”

Her book of tales is published. She then produces an autobiographical novel about a young woman from Utah moving to Southern California, a copy of which she sends to Jolene on publication, which prompts a return letter: “Jolene was full of praise for what I’d done as well as for the fact that I had even become a writer, as she put it, against all odds.” She doesn’t mind her own appearance as a minor character (bearing her own name), but she does criticize Verna’s giving the book a traditional happy ending; and of the character based on Vincent — the man with whom Verna had in life made a happy marriage, after Jolene did not — she asks: “Why had I chosen to portray the Vincent character in my novel as such an eccentric, fragile person? Did I imagine it might make him more attractive to a reader? Why not a more honest description of him as he really was — a pampered mama’s boy with an almost maniacal sense of entitlement, a self-involved narcissist.”

In time, L.A. newcomer Verna writes a nonfiction study of the prototypical Angeleno author Raymond Chandler and his wife Cissy, who (unlike Verna) spent years moving around Los Angeles without finding a place that felt like home. Here the author adds a slight Borgesian dimension, for her own best-known work is her 2007 biography of the Chandlers, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved. With it, Freeman, herself a native of Utah, extended the distinguished tradition of “outsiders” being the most perceptive chroniclers of Los Angeles, by writing unforgettably about the premier exemplar of that tradition: the Illinois-born, England-raised poet laureate of L.A.’s mean streets.

MacArthur Park does not present its events in strict chronology, skipping back and forth between decades and places. This sustains an element of suspense not unlike that in a detective novel. (“I had cultivated a gift for storytelling,” Verna says, “but I didn’t appear to know what the ending of this story would be.”) And it sets up several episodes in which characters’ perceptions of one another are turned on their heads.

When Verna, for instance, goes to the serious trouble of exploring why Vincent’s nature is still such a mystery to her after years of marriage — why he keeps his own counsel and remains an enigma — she is shocked by the news her chosen therapist brings: “He came from a different neuro-tribe, she said. […] He saw the world in a unique way.” At first, Verna is outraged: “I felt lost not only to him for a while but to my own self.” Then she envies Vincent his blameless capacity to evade conflict and ignore vexations. “I began to view silence as a positive force.” Then she achieves a new appreciation for the things she’s liked about him all along: “[H]e was the kindest of men. […] He never let things get him down. […] I felt myself falling in love with him all over again.”

The novel’s era-hopping also underscores the physical and social deterioration of Los Angeles and of Verna and Vincent’s neighborhood, which changes from a congenial enclave, where the nighttime sound of police helicopters seems to easily coexist with morning birdsong, to a slough of nasty squalor and menace. “[T]his place where I had lived for so long,” Verna sees, “was descending into darkened chaos.” At this point, when it seems that Verna and Vincent’s situation can’t get much worse (though it will), Jolene once more appears in their lives: first by letter, saying she is moving back to Los Angeles, then in person.

Vincent, who hates change of any sort, is fearful, as is Verna: “I felt she was a threat not just to him but to our happiness.” What is it Jolene wants of them — and of her? Verna reflects: “Friendship, as someone said […] was a crucible of positive and negative feelings. […] [S]trong affections could harbor rancor, trickery, betrayal, not only kindness and love.”

What an ill, frail, but still formidable Jolene says that she wants — “It is not a small thing,” she acknowledges — is for Verna to take her on a road trip from Los Angeles back to their hometown in Utah. Old sites will be seen, old wounds no doubt probed, old relatives perhaps encountered. Jolene will be stimulated by, if not reconciled with, their mutual past; and the emotional stage will be set for her final work of art (she knows she’s dying), which she hopes to set in MacArthur Park itself, now symbolic to her of the things she despises and wants to protest — particularly, the nation’s never-ending cycles of war, symbolized here by Park dedicatee General Douglas MacArthur.

“She knew it was crazy to try and address something so big,” Verna observes, “but why not? […] She wanted the new work to be her most political performance.” Just as importantly, though, MacArthur Park also conjures the mythic Jimmy Webb song of the same name, which Jolene so loved in 1968: “A song so strange, so wonderful, and so cryptic. […] You think the song is about lost love, she said, but it could as easily be the song for the end of the world.”

Strange, wonderful, cryptic: Words that apply as well to the novel MacArthur Park, which tells one story in words on the page and another between the lines, with the second text becoming more plain the longer one reads. This book is so rich and beautifully written that it deserves to be savored many more times than once.

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Tom Nolan is a crime fiction reviewer and the author and editor of several books, including Ross Macdonald: A Biography.