JULY 21, 2017
I MOVED TO Los Angeles a decade ago from Boston. I had fallen under the sway of my new home, hard, the way you fall in love with a person. I was besotted by the palm trees, the East side bodegas, the smell of honeysuckle and night jasmine. I loved how completely un-Boston it was, totally different from the prim, gray New England that had raised me. When I told people back East where I was moving, I heard: “Why? Los Angeles is terrible.” “The traffic!” “It’s so plastic!”
Such impassioned resistance was ludicrous — most of these people had never been to Los Angeles and had based their disgust on stereotypes and Woody Allen movies from the ’70s. Their disapproval only made me dig into my love even more, as is the way with forbidden passions. And anyway, in my first years as an Angeleno, I almost wanted to keep the city a secret for myself and its other disciples: I can’t believe we get to live here in this paradise. Let’s not tell anyone else and risk spoiling it.
I was brought back to my initial affair with Los Angeles in a visceral way when I read Daniel Riley’s debut novel, Fly Me. Although the author grew up in Manhattan Beach, he decamped to New York City, where he now lives, working as an editor at GQ. He seems to have been pining for the surf and turf of his hometown for some time. In his new book, he perfectly captures not only the pleasures of California living, but also, more specifically, the rapturous initiation by which those from harsher climes give themselves over to the Golden State (even if sometimes self-consciously). Indeed, he carefully, credibly evokes the subtle distinction between the two approaches to California dreaming: the way of those who were born to it, and the way of those who are called to it.
There is a long and storied history of writers excavating what it means to be a native Californian. One immediately thinks of Joan Didion, who provides the epigraph to Riley’s book:
California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
There is also a body of passionate writing on the idiosyncratic joys of the place — Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, and pretty much everything by Eve Babitz comes to mind. And, of course, SoCal beach culture has inspired decades of pop odes, from the Beach Boys to Baywatch. In the quest for subject matter, it’s hard to go wrong with the region’s mix of perfect weather, perfect bods, and the kind of yearning for the idealized good life that has launched countless crazes, from health food and yoga, to crystals and kombucha.
It’s easy to describe Los Angeles in archetypes — good and bad. But there’s something specific about washing up in Southern California from afar, and realizing that all of this is yours, too. Wisely, Riley opens his book with this very experience, as seen through the eyes of his heroine, Suzy Whitman, a cute, freckle-faced tomboy who has just left behind her East Coast life and identity — the upstate New York childhood spent racing cars with her dad, and the big city career her Vassar education primed her for — to follow her beautiful older sister into a job as a stewardess. She falls in love with the laidback, hang-loose vibe of her new homeland, and we are invited to do the same:
See it like Suzy sees it. The wide white beach, the blue carpet rolling out to the edge, the red bodies cinched around the courts at Nineteenth Street. The peninsula to the north and the peninsula to the south, bookends on the bay. Just imagine how that view might register in the body of someone still getting used to living at the ocean. How it might bleach her judgment, boost her nerve, and lead her to places she never meant to go.
Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that writing about being high on California beach culture without resorting to cliché is as tricky as writing about being high on love, or drugs — both of which figure in the book as well. Riley manages to avoid any embarrassingly tired truisms, and to see his locale through fresh eyes. Indeed, the landscape becomes one of the central — and most compelling — characters in the book:
It’s maybe thirty minutes out from sunset, and there’s a buoyant glow hovering above the rooftops but above their heads. The sky peels back shades and the light grows richer. When Suzy looks up, there’s this thing that happens, where she can see through the light but also detect the faintest reflection. It’s like a glass ceiling, a sky of mirrors — each talking to another, all color moving together from warm to cool, to cream-colored and then white.
Much of the success of his evocation has to do with his inspired choice of exact locale: not just Southern California, but 1972 in Sela de Mar, the LAX-adjacent community that is home base for a multitude of “stews” — the preferred nickname for flight attendants, who, in this historical portrait, must be and dress cute, and remain unmarried, in order to fly the friendly skies. Such delicious generational and vocational specificity instantly drew me in; I couldn’t believe no one had written this book before.
Especially since, during the period explored in Fly Me, the skies were anything but cordial. Hijackings were common, and flight attendants were on the front lines of keeping passengers safe and calm. Riley’s setting, then, gives the book a cultural nostalgia that will be appreciated by Mad Men fans and serves as a source of believable tension, which captures the genuine anxiety of travel, both past and present:
In the seven weeks since Suzy started, there have been six hijackings. It has been going on for years, to no great resolution, and after slowing some, things have begun to sizzle again. Grand Pacific provides a weekly update of hijackings in a black box in the airline newsletter. There’s probably been a hundred attempts in the last few years — dozens of flights to Cuba, demands for millions in cash. The skyjackings were covered feverishly, and the feverish coverage inspired copycats. It is a rarer and rarer thing to have a flight staffed with stews who haven’t experienced one firsthand …
With current worries about safety in the air and airline customer treatment, Fly Me feels like a timely book.
But, more importantly, the novel is a vibrant, pitch-perfect rendering of decadent beachside youth culture, with its surfing, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and all-day parties. Suzy is both enamored of her new life and hesitant to give herself over to it completely, especially when her crush on the king of the local scene causes her to become an unwitting — and then, complicit — drug mule. Yes, you read that right. This is no languid high-literary outing where the characters do little more than stare at the sea and ruminate on their inner workings; To the Lighthouse it is not. It’s a well-plotted, tension-filled novel that shows how the curiosity and invincibility of youth might cause an innocent (if tough) young woman to drift into the underworld — kind of like a ’70s version of Orange Is the New Black.
Riley keenly portrays the confusion and frustration of youth — those stretches when it feels like one should be doing something, when just living one’s life doesn’t seem quite enough. He’s good at capturing, with concision, the effects certain characters have on others: “Billy — the new zipper for Suzy, the thought that opens her up to all those raw unasked for feelings.” Particularly well rendered is the mercurial blend of affection, admiration, and jealousy that can exist between siblings — in this case, Suzy and her sister Grace. There are dozens of nimble moments when Suzy discovers her sister’s particular magic, both with wonder and unease.
When Grace finally shows at the beach today — if Grace finally shows — Suzy’s sure it’ll play out the same as ever: Grace will float in on a pink Glinda bubble, pass out hugs, kisses, and chewing gum, and break up whatever knots of resentment have taken to materializing on account of the lateness, the too-chillness, the casual cool. Everything important so unimportant to Grace.
And he believably sets his characters against a vividly rendered backdrop of the times, and its cultural touchstones, in California and beyond. As when Grace’s husband, Mike, pursues an interview with Jim Jones as the perfect, provocative subject for the magazine he is trying to launch. Or when Suzy and Grace enjoy the euphoric experience of watching The Rolling Stones play Madison Square Garden, very much at the height of their powers:
Mick shovels rose petals onto the fans in the front row, blowing kisses, whipping his arms in windmills. When the light catches him right, it’s possible to make out the nubs of his ribs, even from a distance, accented by the plunge of his blouse. Eventually a version of “Street Fighting Man” that fails to end — this collective will, it seems, of the crowd, pushing the bouncing ball on the sheet music along, run after run, in order that it not resolve in the Keef-and-Charlie wind-down and Mick bow.
And yet, while Suzy and Grace’s relationship felt very true, the inner lives of the individual female characters didn’t always seem entirely believable. As when Suzy examines herself, naked in the mirror, and goes from objectifying herself to being turned on, without any of the usual nagging self-criticism experienced by most women, even when they are as young and close to perfection as Suzy at that age. And for all its skill, the book is, at times, a bit overwritten. Riley is fond of metaphors, and while they’re almost always spot on, the sheer profusion can become fatiguing, pulling attention away from the story: “Her hair looks as lightly and thinly drawn as a pencil sketch. Her mouth, though, stacks up full, her lips a pair of pinkie fingers.”
But maybe that’s a matter of taste. The same goes for the book’s neat conclusion, which I found a little unbelievable. Of course, if there’s one thing we can learn from the ethos of California, it’s that we’re all searching for our own version of a happy ending. What felt most successful to me was Riley’s evocative rendering of the collective passion inspired by the familiar, beloved aspects of his setting, both historic and geographic. When I landed in Los Angeles, I fell in love with the Troubadour, the Original Farmers Market, and Laurel Canyon, just like most everyone else does. But I also came to love the food at the family-owned Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood, and the illuminated cross on the hillside above the freeway that brought me back there at the end of the day. It’s the balance between the universal and the personal that really make a place home, and makes a story well told.