“TO BE ALIVE is to be vulnerable,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle, and few American cities exemplify this as poetically as Los Angeles — or Shaky Town, as the city is dubbed in Lou Mathews’s new novel by that name — a place erected on fault lines, where the very ground beneath you is subject to unpredictable furies.
But natural disasters aren’t the only source of vulnerability for the characters in Mathews’s novel. This is 1980s East L.A., a place rife with gang conflicts, cultural clashes, and religious malfeasance, a barrio where even the street signs point to trouble (Salsipuedes Street, translated from Spanish, means Get out if you can!).
The novel is made up of a series of interlocking stories — a peripheral character in one story may become the focus of the next — as Mathews turns the prism of East L.A. this way and that, examining it from various perspectives. As an L.A. native, Mathews writes as an insider, giving voice to a diverse group of Angelenos spanning multiple generations and cultures. The result is greater than the sum of its parts: a panoramic vision of an alluring, deranged, rattletrap of a city. Each character we meet on the streets of Shaky Town is struggling in the face of their own fragility, and each has found their own way of trying to fortify themselves against the chaos.
First, we meet Emiliano Gomez, a Mexican American with deep roots in the community and the self-proclaimed “mayor” of Shaky Town. Emiliano is an “old borracho,” scarred by the death of his son decades prior, who finds special joy in copitas of brandy, a procession of female company, and his longtime neighbor’s authentic Mexican cooking. (“That food is worth everything we have had to put up with in this lifetime and the next.”) Emiliano, who has lived in East L.A. since the age of five, provides in part a historical view of how the city has changed over the decades. In the opening pages of the novel, he reminisces about the 1923 earthquake of his childhood: “When the dam broke, this street was flooded to the tops of the trees. Right where we’re sitting, I floated over it on a raft…” In another chapter, Emiliano relays the divisive history of Dodger Stadium, which was built on Chavez Ravine, a rural stretch of land unfairly wrested from Mexican American landowners. Over the course of his narrative, Emiliano reveals a city subject to sudden and radical transformation, prone to violent states of flux.
Another narrative reveals the story of Mr. Kim, a Korean immigrant and bodega owner, who is regularly harassed by a group of junkies who “steal him blind and shoot up in his alley,” and who sneeringly address him as “Mr. Garlic Head.” When Mr. Kim’s wife tries to stop a junkie from shoplifting and is brutally beaten as a result, Mr. Kim becomes determined to protect himself, his family, and his livelihood; but he doesn’t realize how much the neighborhood has already rubbed off on him. It’s a vivid illustration of the way the American Dream can fizzle and die, and a topical account of the enmity too often aimed at Asian American immigrants.
In another chapter, which was originally published as a stand-alone story and won a Pushcart Prize, we are brought into the confidences of Dulcie Gomez (Emiliano’s niece), a teenage girl whose sometime boyfriend, Chuey, a member of the gang 42nd Flats, has just been arrested for his involvement in a drive-by shooting. In prose that feels remarkably alive, Mathews succeeds in capturing the mind of a teenage girl who — already savvy in prison protocols and pat-downs — has grown up immersed in a world of gang transactions and tragedies. After shrewdly convincing the authorities that she’s Chuey’s wife, Dulcie manages to finagle a jail visit. There, sitting across from Chuey and listening to his story of what happened, Dulcie is confronted with the profound senselessness of their situation:
Chuey, I say, was you high? He looks down at the table. When he looks up again, I can’t believe it, his eyes are wet. He sees me looking, so he closes them and just sits there, with his eyes closed, pulling on his little chin beard. God, he’s such a pretty dude. Ay, Dulcie, he says. His eyes open and he gives me that smile, the one I have to argue to get, the one I love him for. What can I say?, Chuey tells me, La Vida Loca, no?
Right, Chuey, I think, La Vida Loca. The Crazy Life. It’s the explanation for everything on 42nd Avenue.
The crazy life: it’s this tangle of beauty and ruin, humor and hopelessness, that the characters in Shaky Town can’t seem to find their way out of. They are all, in one way or another, inhabiting unstable territory, living recklessly, betting against themselves. Perhaps drawing on his former incarnations as an auto mechanic and a street racer, Mathews proves himself fluent in the slanguage of the foolhardy, disenfranchised, working-class contingent. His previous book, L.A. Breakdown, delved into the world of illegal street racing in the 1960s. In the introduction to Shaky Town, the book’s publisher reminisces about L.A. Breakdown, calling it “a love letter to doomed knuckleheads everywhere.” In Shaky Town, Mathews uses a wider lens than he did in his previous book, giving voice to a broader range of voices — from gang members to art professors to elderly widows — but his affection for the knuckleheads and glory hounds remains intact. He captures them well, in prose buoyed by energy and humor:
A boilermaker is an unmixed drink: It’s a shot of bourbon or whiskey chased with a beer. Your stomach does the mixing, and something more, I think. Cold fusion or a hallucinogenic reaction, some small rebellion. You sip the bourbon, swallow the beer, and then it kicks back, a slow punt lofted up the neural sheath. You feel it at the base of your skull and think about hang-time as it travels, pleasurably, up to that small patch inside your pate where spine shivers start.
One of the book’s most stirring stories comes toward its end, in the novel’s titular chapter. It’s the story of Brother Cyril, a former boxer from Ireland and now a dynamic teacher and the Dean of Discipline at an all-boys Catholic school. When Cyril discovers that his predecessor at the school sexually abused several students, he alerts the authorities, only to find that the school, in concert with the archdiocese, is actively working to cover it up. Demoralized, Cyril leaves the brotherhood and proceeds to lose himself in the bottle and in the comforts of hired women. Like so many of the characters in Shaky Town, he’s trying to numb himself to the world, to render himself invulnerable to its abuses.
But something shifts when Cyril brings home a prostitute he hasn’t seen on the boulevard before, a woman with “a sweet, round, agreeable face,” who he notices is curiously barefoot. When the woman silently undresses, lays down, and opens her legs, Cyril stares at the soles of her feet, which are “black and crusted.” Cyril thinks of the barefoot saints, St. Francis and St. Clare. “Nevermind,” Cyril says, calling off the date. He pays the woman anyway, and offers the woman a pair of old shoes, but she won’t wear them. She’s content, it seems, to walk the streets vulnerable and unguarded.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum said, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered.” In Shaky Town’s final chapter, we find ourselves back in the company of Emiliano, on a hill overlooking Elysian Park and Dodger Stadium. Suddenly, the ground begins to surge and tremble. Emiliano, holding onto a yucca tree, has a bird’s-eye view of the destruction befalling his city — freeways rippling, railroad cars toppling, Dodgers Stadium cracking into pieces. But Emiliano doesn’t duck for cover or cry out in fear. Instead, he remembers the words his grandfather taught him long ago in his native Zacatecas. “Ride the Black Horse!” Emiliano shouts, the earth roiling beneath him. In other words: Embrace the wildness, the turbulence; stay in the game despite the potential for pain and loss. Ride the black horse, even though you may be broken in the process. What other choice, really, do we have?