THE DINOSAURS OF CABAZON that once stood alone in the desert on the north side of the 10 freeway. Swimmer Lynne Cox braving bone-cold waters wearing only a bathing suit. The shape of Mickey Mouse’s head turning up in random places.
These subjects, and more, make Martin J. Smith’s new collection of essays and profile pieces compelling and readable. In “The Mark of Mickey,” Smith quotes Pomona College visual communications expert Brian Stonehill, who says: “People are simply fascinated by ‘things that lie on the boundary between what’s meaningful and what’s random.” The seemingly random stories included here are, in part, what makes Smith’s collection not only whimsical but informative.
If you were a reader of the Orange County Register when Smith was a reporter there, or the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine or Orange Coast Magazine when he was editor, you may have read some of the 24 pieces that focus on the offbeat, and often quirky people — and creatures — of the American Southwest. The difference with these works is that each is followed with a postscript in which Smith revisits his story and updates the ending. In his introduction to the book, he says, “Most writers get only one chance to tell the stories they discover. This book is my second chance.”
Second chances, indeed; it’s a theme that comes up repeatedly in this volume. Southern California’s “King of the Surf” guitar player Dick Dale rebounded five times, and at age 78 he continues to tour. “I can’t stop touring,” he tells Smith, “because I will die.”
Then there’s former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who went from being an employee to a steadfast critic of NASA for its lack of space exploration, and retired podiatrist Tom Amberry who at 69 started perfecting the basketball free throw. And he updates stories about the Huntington Beach pet cemetery, the Silver State Open Road Classic in Nevada, and the Liberace deathwatch.
In lesser hands, these topics might come off as ho-hum, but Smith is the master of the essay and human interest profile form. Part of his talent in bringing nonfiction subjects alive may be the chops he’s acquired as a novelist: as well as the two books of pop culture nonfiction he’s written and co-written, he’s the author of five volumes of crime fiction.
Central to what makes these pieces so compelling is Smith’s voice. With alacrity he mixes in dollops of humor, sweetening the facts, always with admirable restraint. I freelanced under Smith when he was editor at the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and at Orange Coast, and I always appreciated his edits. He was rigorous with my work and he’s no less rigorous with his own. That, combined with his voice, gives him that rare thumbprint every writer hopes for: his name could be missing from his nonfiction and I’d know it was him anyway.
Humor is hard to do, yet his dry humor is evident in every piece. Even in his most solemn piece, from 1986, “The Life and Death of AC-3,” where he tells the story of the last breeding California condor and what happened to her, his light touch is apparent. It’s needed relief after reading about the condors’ lead poisoning, the result of feeding on the carcasses of hunters’ abandoned kill:
For most of her lifetime, AC-3 was about the size of a substantial Thanksgiving turkey. Although she was a marvel of aeronautical engineering, she otherwise was an aesthetic nightmare, the ultimate triumph of function over form. Her feet were gnarled, for grasping rotting flesh. Her beak was hooked, for tearing it. Her head was bald, to ease her pursuit of delectable internal organs at mealtime. With those Pleistocene good looks. …
Smith takes his subjects seriously, yet he is never too serious or didactic. This ability is what made him a good editor and it’s what makes his writing readable and memorable. He can make the reader laugh and forget for a minute how serious everything in the world has become.
In “Looking for Big George Coyle,” Smith aims to find the headstone of Big George Coyle, a remarkable toilet-trained cat, and at the same time tell the bigger story of the Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery in Huntington Beach, then under increasing pressure to sell to developers.
“Considering the fresh flowers, balloons, pinwheels, and chew toys regularly left on Sea Breeze gravesites,” he writes, “you can almost hear the cries of an outraged citizenry.” I’m reading along, growing sadder by the minute when the words “chew toys” make me laugh — partly a timing thing. It’s this attention to detail, to humor, to placing particular words or the right snippet of conversation in the right place, that makes the pieces sing.
In “Lamenting Liberace,” which covers the 1987 deathwatch outside the flamboyant entertainer’s Palm Springs home, Smith writes about the fans waiting outside as Liberace is dying inside:
Minicams stare unblinkingly from their tripods waiting to record the inevitable and apparently imminent. The crowd is generally well behaved except for one man arrested by Palm Springs police for trying to steal a purse from a spectator’s pickup truck.
Smith is always after the quirk, the detail that prevents his heartfelt writing from straying into the realm of the sentimental.
One piece I remember well, and liked so much when it came out in the Times in 1998, is his long narrative about two dads — himself and Philip Reed — their four kids, two vans, and a 6,500-mile book tour:
Along the way, we intend to sign books and read selected passages to anyone who’ll listen. We’ll pass out free copies to influential booksellers and exploit the novelty of our self-styled Dads Tour to get airtime on radio and feature stories in local newspapers. When things get slow in the larger stores, I’ll play my harmonica as loudly as I can to attract a crowd. Silence equals death in our line of work, and we’re out to make some noise. We’re shedding the mien of serious novelists to become a bookstore version of those human directionals who point giant foam fingers at model homes.
A hallmark of Smith’s work is self-deprecation. Only a writer comfortable in his own skin and with his own abilities can make fun of himself as well as he does.
From “The Wild Duck Chase”: “Berger and I were pedaling along the San Gabriel River bike path one October morning, engaged in a pointless conversation that’s popular among men our age: We were discussing the dicey question of when, or if, we might be able to retire.” From this story came Smith’s nonfiction book The Wild Duck Chase, later adapted into a documentary film.
The pieces in this collection about creatures and inanimate objects just might rival the number of pieces about humans. Twenty years ago SeaWorld’s problems were just beginning, and we were also worried about Russia. The killer whales are not getting along, he reports, becoming aggressive during shows, and killer whale specialist Dennis Kelly says, “It’s as difficult to resolve [the whale incident problem] as putting an American into a room full of Russians.” (Did the United States ever not worry about Russia?)
Smith’s work isn’t all kicks and giggles. In “Taking Tinseltown with ‘The Greatest,’” he writes about one of his boyhood idols, Muhammad Ali, who is suffering from Parkinson’s, though his mind is all there. Ali shows Smith a magic trick and makes a pink silk handkerchief disappear into his famous hand.
He opens his empty hand. I touch its talc-smooth palm unselfconsciously, turning it over and looking for an explanation. I know it’s a simple magic-store trick. I know the handkerchief has not actually disappeared. And yet, the illusion is perfect. I can’t explain what I’ve just seen, and now I understand his point, wordlessly made. Nothing with Ali is as at seems.
At the end of the piece, the reader, like Smith, learns how the trick works.
Books of essays too often stall out somewhere in the middle, with the reader saying, enough already. As a literary agent I know said, “People like to read one essay in a magazine, but most people don’t want to read a book of essays.” And while that may be true, Mr. Las Vegas Has a Bad Knee does just the opposite. After reading the book, I wish there were more. What did Smith leave out because of space? Is a volume two upcoming? I can only hope.
The tearjerker piece comes at the very end, which is where it should be.
“Aren’t We All Just Squatters, Really?” talks about the Palos Verdes Estates house on a cliff overlooking the ocean where Smith raised his kids, a house loaned to his family because of his wife’s job with the city of Palos Verdes Estates. But what he’s really talking about here is how it’s enough to be grateful to be alive and enjoy the riches we’re given. It’s a piece that wrangles with the question of worthiness and the bittersweet knowledge that the present very soon becomes the past. Smith ends the book with the lines, “regardless of what we own, we’re all just passing through, squatters in paradise. It reminds me, too, that where I’ve lived has become part of who I am, and that’s something I’ll have forever.”
It’s Smith’s compassion, coupled with his droll humor and his ability to go deep — but not so deep as to forget that the essayist’s role is to entertain as well as enlighten — that makes Smith one of the best nonfiction writers today.