AUGUST 7, 2016
ANGELENOS READ THE SIGNS. When the wind comes hot and dry, people mutter in hushed tones: “Earthquake weather.” The Pacific turns glassy and eerily calm, and Angelenos shake their heads and shut their doors. A dog scampering suddenly could portend disaster, and birds chirping at night announce doom. Fear is buried like a snake beneath our perfect skies. We wait for the Big One, which we know is out there, waiting, ready to strike.
What if we could actually read the signs? What if we could predict when and where the big earthquake will come with total precision — a prediction based not on feeling but on science? Enter Charlie Richter in Paul Kolsby and David L. Ulin’s wonderfully satirical novel, Ear to the Ground. Charlie has the right equipment and a whole lot of hutzpah. He is the grandson of Charles Richter, inventor of the Richter scale, so earthquakes are in his DNA. Charlie predicted the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, so he is the predictor, the guy with his ear to the ground; like Babe Ruth pointing to the fences, Charlie can call it. This time around, however, he is not calling Kobe but Los Angeles, and the date is December 29, 1996 — magnitude 8.9. Will Charlie be right? Will the Big One actually hit?
The world, and especially Los Angeles, seems to think so, and what Kolsby and Ulin portray is a frantic, zany Los Angeles that has been handed its own death sentence. The city, though, isn’t frantic in the way one might think. Rather than screaming through the streets and abandoning Sodom en masse, the people see dollar signs. For everyone, especially those in Hollywood, there is dough in disaster, and Kolsby and Ulin seem to have fun exposing the greed and cynicism of an industry that traffics human suffering in order to make a buck. The novel is, in this sense, reminiscent of Nathanael West, who wrote arguably the greatest L.A. novel, The Day of the Locust. West, a friend noted, “was like a large, amiable lion wandering around with a thorn in his paw. Most of the time it didn’t hurt except […] when he sat down to write, the paw that picked up the pen was the one with the thorn in it.” Ulin and Kolsby are similarly pained, but write about it with a lighter touch.
Ear to the Ground opens in iconic Los Angeles fashion, with Charlie in a red rental car on Sunset, “where everyone has to drive.” The sun is like “a laser,” and he is moving “eleven feet per minute.” After a pretty blonde listening to Howard Stern disappears near Melrose, Charlie studies the cracks in the houses he passes. Early on, Kolsby and Ulin trot out many of the expected L.A. tropes: car culture, traffic, sunshine, a blonde, and, of course, earthquakes. But they are conscientious writers; they don’t hold the tropes up as mythologies in which we should believe. Rather, Kolsby and Ulin actively undermine conventional images in order to show a starker, more naked reality.
They introduce a cast of characters emanating from Charlie’s apartment at 418 North Spaulding in the Fairfax District. Interestingly, in 1992, at the height of Nirvana’s fame, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love lived at 448 North Spaulding. Ear to the Ground is filled with many nods and inside jokes, so it would be surprising if Kolsby and Ulin didn’t know this fact, especially as Love and Nirvana provide a sort of soundtrack for this 1990s novel. The most important characters in Charlie’s residence are the beautiful and talented Grace Gonglewski, who reads scripts for Tailspin Pictures, and her awful boss, Ethan: “His shirts were so starched she hoped one day his collar would slice through the tender skin of his neck.” There’s also Ian, Grace’s deadbeat scriptwriter boyfriend. Charlie and Grace immediately find a connection, but Ian, of course, is in the way.
In the meantime, Charlie goes about his work at the Center for Earthquake Studies, where his boss, Caruthers, announces, “We are here to predict an earthquake, gentlemen.” As the novel unfolds, we learn Caruthers is in bed with Hollywood producers who, and if Caruthers can deliver the prediction, stand to make millions of dollars. Caruthers had “found another land of opportunity — the land of earthquakes.”
Charlie, who is naïve to such matters, works at the prediction with the energy of a zealot out to save the world: “Leaning against a mound of dirt precisely at position D-55 of the San Andreas Fault […] suddenly, in the thick of his data, he came upon a curious block of prime numbers.” These numbers become the basis for the formula Charlie uses to crack the code:
Soon the massive logarithm was entirely solvable, like a crossword puzzle, when one nagging four-letter word leads to ten others: Moments after he’d locked down the epicenter (E), Charlie had solved for the quake’s occurrence date (OD) and magnitude (M).
Caruthers wastes no time in announcing the prediction, and so begins Kolsby and Ulin’s critique of a culture bent on profiting from it.
Meanwhile, the prediction turns Ian’s fortunes around. He had written a script about a guy like Charlie who discovers that the Big One is coming to Los Angeles, and the real prediction turns Ian’s script into a hot commodity. Every studio bigwig cynically believes the prediction will create a mass audience for the film. The execs do not state exactly why they think people will flock to a disaster film in the face of an actual disaster, but perhaps this omission is less a fault of Kolsby and Ulin’s and more a reflection of the twisted logic of the movie industry. The evil Ethan and the insightful Grace land the project, and they go full steam ahead into production. The director is Henny Rarlin (a spoonerism of action director Renny Harlin — his Cutthroat Island held the Guinness world record for “Biggest Box-Office Flop of All Time”), and the star is Bridge Bridges. (Sandra Bullet and Matt Dillinger make cameos later on.)
The title of Ian’s script is Ear to the Ground, indicating that the novel just may be telling the story of the script itself. In this way, Ear to the Ground (the novel) represents Los Angeles fiction at its metafictional best. Perhaps the greatest novel in this vein is Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, which was published in 1990 and exerts a powerful influence over Ear to the Ground. But in the opening of The Day of the Locust, too, the reader thinks the war Tod sees is real until a stage director breaks the spell by yelling, “Stage Nine — you bastards!” The idea is that nothing is actually real in Los Angeles: everything is a fiction, and even a fiction that purports to be real will undermine itself by acknowledging itself as fiction.
The potential danger is that the novel can become too script-like. Kolsby and Ulin’s characters are, in many ways, one-dimensional. Often, they are either good or evil — nothing in between — and mainly evil. Even Caruthers, whom we imagine got into the earthquake business to save lives, sits over his charts rubbing his hands together, all but twisting his mustache. Ethan is the caricature of the young, megalomaniac studio executive. No one, in fact, but Charlie and Grace are exempt from greed.
But we don’t blame Kolsby, a screenwriter himself, or Ulin, who has done as much for putting Los Angeles writing on the map as anyone, most especially in his magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology and a recent wonderful addition to our regional discourse, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. But why don’t we blame them? First, because this novel was serialized in the now defunct Los Angeles Reader back in the 1990s. A note at the beginning warns, “Minor inconsistencies in the narrative that occurred during the process of serialization have been left intact.” The O. J. trial and the death of Jerry Garcia permeate the historical atmosphere of the novel, yet somehow the novel does not feel dated. This book is a true collaboration, the result of two minds working together, much like in the process of screenwriting. The authors admit they were going for a “War of the Worlds feel,” and they were writing fast, an installment each week. The energy of the original project is maintained, as all of the chapters are short and swift, making for a fast read.
Although the science of the novel seems suspect — the climactic scene, when Charlie attempts to save Los Angeles from its own demise, as well as his own prediction, is a highly implausible attempt at earthquake prevention — the novel does not try to present reality with a capital R. Instead, Ulin and Kolsby have a bit of fun poking at the excesses of Hollywood. What they have achieved is a relevant social novel in the vein of other classic Hollywood novels. Ultimately, Ear to the Ground earns its place somewhere on the shelf alongside James M. Cain and Elmore Leonard.
Scott Laughlin’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Post Road, Great Jones Street, Night Owl, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and in the books A Manner of Being: Writers on their Mentors and Such Conjunctions, among other publications.