JUNE 1, 2018
I’VE WANTED TO make a life in Los Angeles since the first time I visited the Walt Disney Studios and loved the way everyone walked instead of wandered. Two minutes was all it took. Here, I existed on the same property as the people who shape entertainment, and therefore shape the world. I made an instant mental note: do all you can to belong here. No matter how long it takes.
The articles compiled in Joe Donnelly’s new collection, L.A. Man: Profiles from a Big City and a Small World, are written with the same brio and enthusiasm that can only come from an émigré to this eccentric city. Interviews with celebrities like Lou Reed and Drew Barrymore paired with entrepreneurs like the founders of the surf- and skateboarding Z-Boys create a narratively compelling and articulate whole that should inspire Angelenos to reach their roots deeper. His stories are as sharp as they are captivating, and it all begins with a whirlwind road trip featuring filmmaker Wes Anderson on the brink of releasing Rushmore (1998), his first successful film.
Donnelly makes the smart decision to place this profile at the book’s opening. The stories of how much we want something don’t really matter to the masses unless they see us one day receive that success. Riding through Texas with Anderson while he’s unsure of this outcome is inspiring. The only thing he seems sure about is his own history, which Donnelly observes thusly: “The past is rolling by in sequence like the broken lines on the highway.”
This theme not only describes Anderson as he teeters on the ledge of prominence, but also stretches itself magnificently through the rest of this book. L.A. Man is laden with the “just relax” attitude of our beaches, skater dudes, and the impact of mad criminals searching for stability in the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. There are tales of Sean Penn describing his rites of passage and origins on how the Z-Boys created legends like Tony Hawk. Los Angeles has always been about more than just Hollywood, and Donnelly’s book provides a history to our quirks that surprised even a near-native like myself.
Donnelly himself is a formidable writer. His ability to build a compelling narrative never gets in the way of the intrigue from his interviewees. They are Donnelly’s personal picks in representing the origins of modern L.A. culture, and it is clear why each person made the cut.
Yet this talent for keeping the spotlight on his subjects creates a slight disconnect, as the one thing that detracts from the momentum of this collection is the connective tissue. It is clear that this anthology is meant to show all the nooks and crannies of L.A. life, but it lacks a strong enough thread to weave these stories together. Donnelly leaves much off the page regarding his own love for the city; and though it is evident in his writing, his personal insights on Los Angeles feel more like echoes than testaments. In fact, Donnelly chooses to remove himself as much as possible, even referring to himself as “the passenger” in his first profile with Anderson — an interesting choice in an article that is mainly about how much we all want to share our own stories.
Donnelly includes a moving profile on his own father, shortly before he succumbed to cancer, but it does little to paint a portrait of Los Angeles beyond the slight mentions of a longing for the city. We know what L.A. means to people like Lou Reed and Lauren Weedman, but what does it mean to Joe Donnelly? The book feels unfinished without an introduction, an afterword, or some other personal insertion from the author about his own L.A. journey. For such a phenomenal writer, I missed not having a bit of Los Angeles in his own words. He does a journalist’s job well by keeping the spotlight on his subjects, but for a book author, there’s no denying the curiosity for the man partially hidden behind the curtain, making the title a bit of a tease.
There is also a noticeable lack of what Los Angeles looks like in the millennial age. The last article is from 2017, and features phenomenal filmmaker Werner Herzog, but comes nowhere close to sketching an evolving portrait of how the city has responded to life in the post-print age of social media “influencers.” The best work in this collection is from the 1990s and the time before the internet. Given Donnelly’s talent for fearless questioning, it would have been magnetic to read his connections to L.A.’s newest influencers. Without it, the promised panoramic treatment of municipal culture feels incomplete.
Despite this time capsule feel, the book is an excellent read and will draw in anyone fascinated with the City of Angels and its inhabitants. Z-Boy Craig Stecyk, in the foreword, calls the author a consistently “unrelenting inquisitor” — and that kind of vitality pairs perfectly with L.A. To thrive here, one must smile through dozens of mixers, exchange countless phone numbers with people who will never call, all the while competing against the other millions of hopefuls, listening to them share the stories that set them apart and draw out their light. No one comes to Los Angeles to seek insignificance. Even those who achieve success keep going, compelling everyone else to move through the gridlocks, the parking tickets, the overcrowding, and the vanity. To discover where that drive comes from would be to read Donnelly’s book. As he says in his essay tracking a lone wolf that wandered back into Southern California: he went into a vacuum and kept going.
Recently, I went out with a group of movie professionals who are far more accomplished than I am and learned I didn’t need to be insecure. I never felt apart from them for a moment. We were the L.A. culture, connected by the understanding that not one of us would spend another moment in this city if we didn’t really, really want it. Whatever “it” may be.
That’s the best thing I found in Donnelly’s book. Through all its stories, famous and personal, there lies an adoration for this brutal city, this unforgiving grind and immaculate landscape. There’s never a question to his subjects of walking away from it. It simply isn’t an option.
I am taken back to this quote from Werner Herzog at the end of Donnelly’s cruise through the big city. The idea that Hollywood’s twinkling lights and infinite luxury “is a very thin crust. Behind it is an enormous intensity of culture and creative energy and things that ultimately decide the big things, the big internal movements of the planet. Things get done here.” Making it in Los Angeles may take a while longer, but I’m glad I read Donnelly’s book when I did: at the start.