The Assembly of Odd: On Rhoda Huffey’s “31 Paradiso”
By Greg BillsOctober 18, 2023
31 Paradiso by Rhoda Huffey
It was not until I made some tentative field trips northwards into Los Angeles that I began to find places—whole neighborhoods—that felt palpably different from anywhere I had grown up. After one day exploring near the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice, after admiring the Ballerina Clown and the Chiat/Day (now Google) Binoculars Building, I settled myself into the Van Go’s Ear coffee bar with my budding-writer metal clipboard and became quickly distracted by the contents of my own head. By the time I looked up again, sunset was long past, and the windows were blank with darkness. The interior of Van Go’s Ear was insistently colorful, less Impressionist than garish in the Memphis Group style, and I felt comfortable in its bubble, as if I were tucked away safe, an extra in someone else’s hallucination.
When I stepped out onto the nighttime sidewalk to head home, it was much later than I had imagined, and I had forgotten where I parked my car. I headed inland, searching, and quickly found myself in an entirely unfamiliar neighborhood. I was unprepared to recognize the geographies of the street trade in drugs and of gang territories, the economic inequities created by generations of zoning and neglect. That night, I was simply confused and unsettled by the shift in mood out of one of the coffee bar’s two exits. I got myself turned around and found my car a block or so from the boardwalk, but the sense stuck with me that life in Venice was … complicated.
About 30 pages into Rhoda Huffey’s new novel, 31 Paradiso, which is set in 1993, I ran into this description:
The building that housed Van Gogh’s Ear was the official divide between two neighborhoods, the one with murders to the inland side, and the one with tourists eating cotton candy in the narrow strip along the ocean. Therefore, and especially after dark fell, you had to be careful which door you exited from.
And I thought, Huh, another writer has captured my own experience of 1990s Venice at midnight. I felt I could trust her to be a rock-solid Virgil guiding me through the ambiguities of the book’s Paradiso Avenue.
Van Gogh’s Ear (with Huffey’s alternate spelling) serves the author as a metaphor for her Venice Beach as a whole: the thin meniscus of commodified weird that is Tourist Venice; the murky deeps of crime and crazy; and, bobbing along, like that beaming coffee bar in the night, the quirky, duck-filled, pointlessly canaled, artsy, bohemian, surfer-poet-pothead wonderland. A community disparaged by “better-dressed types” as “[w]here the debris meets the sea,” but beloved by Huffey and her protagonist, Francine Ephesians Didwell.
As this fun but never frivolous novel begins, Francine, after selling her recently purchased home in Orange County, moves into an old house on a walk-only avenue with a cross street zipping with traffic on one end and a view of the Pacific on the other. She has brought with her a cat, a dog, a table for her intended massage practice, and a slightly teetering hope—more of an impulse—that she will find a way forward from the gutting grief of losing her husband of eight years to cancer. Beyond all his other virtues as a life partner, Cyrus had provided Francine with an escape route from her all-encompassing, oxygen-depriving family.
A glance at Francine’s middle name, Ephesians, might suggest an evangelical flavoring to her childhood, and that would be a vast understatement. Both Mr. and Mrs. Didwell had been star-quality preachers for the Assembly of God, before and after moving from Iowa to Southern California, and in their self-estimate, the Didwells—husband, wife, three daughters, and one son—are “God’s favorite earthly family.” In Francine’s less hagiographic view, they are “a cult of two parents and three siblings” with whom she has not communicated for nine years—until she finds herself with a major gap in the financing of her Venice property and decides to approach her father for some funds. He writes her a check but with a significant penalty: reunion with the Didwells. The black sheep must return to the family home for regular dinners, holy hectoring from the senior Didwells, involvement in the scheming of her siblings, and a reckoning with the reasons she fled the scene the first time.
The stakes for Francine in the narrative—her goals and obstacles—are laid out early and efficiently, and it is Huffey’s elaboration of these plot elements that delight and disconcert. It turns out that Francine’s ability to thrive in Venice will depend on her success in managing the four “bread-and-butter” apartment units located behind her house. As a true daughter of the Didwells, a family that “owned half the city of Monrovia,” her major quest is to become “a successful Venetian landlord,” collecting rents and maintaining the properties (luckily, she meets a handyman savior with ladder at the ready). In a bohemian beach-town journey of self-discovery (can we all agree that this is a genre?), it may seem unusual for the protagonist to strive for success as a small-scale capitalist, yet Huffey manages to make these adventures in real estate whimsical and endearing. While in no way a study of the gentrification of Venice Beach, Francine’s forays do point both to the power potential of owning property and to the influence of her father in the material (as well as the moral) realm.
Mr. Didwell seems willing to fund Francine because he appreciates a good value in realty when he sees one, although he warns that rent control in Venice “is the gateway drug to Communism.” He also seems primed to help her for murkier reasons. Most charitably, the money might be seen as childhood reparations, but the payments feel more like bribes, a kind of reverse blackmail. If the novel were set in 2023, they might come with a nondisclosure agreement. Mr. Didwell, in addition to being Francine’s childhood conduit to salvation, was also a sexual predator, and she has kept his secrets ever since.
Much of the tension in the book arises from the question of if/when/how Francine will breach the self-righteous sanctimony with which the Didwells have insulated themselves in their Monrovia sanctuary. Of course, she risks losing the Didwell income, which allows her to strive for a new life in Venice, but by not speaking up, she must swallow a great silent pain, one she chases down with an increasing number of prescription pills. Francine’s calamities, her monstrous family and spiraling addiction, might seem to parallel the Lost Weekends by the Sea of Kate Braverman’s 1979 novel Lithium for Medea. Such a comparison serves to highlight Huffey’s true genius and secret sauce: a mastery of comic tone. Without softening its sometimes grim material, which the narrative presents unflinchingly, a wealth of outlandish detail and the precision of a voice honed by absurdity focus even the darkest moments under an amused light, not to smooth things over, but to acknowledge human foibles and mysteries. One brief example: whenever the Didwells, in conversation—or Francine, in contemplation—draw upon their endless supply of doom speech (“It is of Satan”), I have to laugh, boy of Utah that I was, but it is also always true that these people really mean it. The Bible verse bric-a-brac is both hilarious and deadly earnest.
If the acidic anomie of Braverman is in some part inspired by everyone’s Los Angeles literary godmother, Joan Didion, I would argue that Huffey’s aesthetic aunts seem Southern, despite the author’s own Iowa heritage (explored in more detail in Huffey’s previous novel, 1999’s The Hallelujah Side). The Didwell family’s overbearing, overextended, preposterous birthday dinners seem like they would be comfortable gatherings for Sister, Stella-Rondo, Papa-Daddy, and the rest of the crew from Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1941). The novel’s outrageous comedy, with its underlying religious stakes, seems akin to the work of Flannery O’Connor. A sequence late in 31 Paradiso involving an imperiled Francine, a kerosene-soaked cat torturer, and the cat burglar who lives furtively under a tree in Francine’s yard could hold its own among the wild epiphanies of O’Connor’s gorilla-costumed misfits.
These and other characters—such as Mr. Venice, wrapped in his garlands of night-blooming jasmine—form the congregation of the neighborhood’s own Assembly of Odd, whose most crucial guardian angel may be a punkette dominatrix who pursues Francine while holding a pair of white leather tap shoes. Julia’s insistence that Francine return to the dance floor reveals what the reader may or may not have suspected: this novel is, in its heart of hearts, one of the great tributes to tap-dancing. Francine has a passion and a gift, as well as a deep, if underexplored, identification with Black Americans, especially Black artists. She had tossed those white Capezios out after choking in a master class with Gregory Hines. In a charming scene added to the paperback edition, featuring tap legend Eddie Brown at the Embassy Hotel, she succeeds in her routine, but she flees again. Then, at last, Francine faces her fears so that she and Julia can join forces as a dancing duo with a marvelously ungainly name, cribbed from a bumper sticker: Schleswig and Holstein. The reader sighs with relief that, somehow, Francine will find her rightful place in the hoofer pantheon.
In the first line of her author’s bio, Rhoda Huffey describes herself as “a tap dancer and writer”—which, along with “cash cow rental unit landlord,” must be the magic trifecta for a successful life in Venice Beach. And under the light of that ungainly, marvelous triple constellation, Venetians can locate their great bard as she reveals the sound of high-flying tap shoes come to earth: shigadeeboom.
Greg Bills is a professor of creative writing at the University of Redlands. His published work includes the novels Consider This Home (1994) and Fearful Symmetry (1996), with essays and stories in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales (2007), Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (2017), and the Santa Monica Review.
Greg Bills is a professor of creative writing at the University of Redlands. His published work includes the novels Consider This Home (1994) and Fearful Symmetry (1996), with essays and stories in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales (2007), Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (2017), and the Santa Monica Review. He has been recognized as a prominent LGBTQ author by the Mapping Literary Utah project, and he has served periodically on the fiction staff at the Community of Writers conference in the High Sierras. He lives in Los Angeles. Visit him at his website.
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