Death and the American Dream by Daniel Cano – A Review of an LA Novel

Death and the American Dream
Daniel Cano
Bilingual Press, 2009, pg 232

Death and the American Dream is a novel of politics, intrigue and race set in the Los Angles of 1915-1922. It tells the story of Pepe Ríos, an Mexican revolutionary who flees to LA to avoid the war and prosecution for the murder of a rail road official in Texas. He gets a job as a reporter with a Spanish language paper in LA and begins to learn his trade under the crusty editor Ángeal Durón, a 40 something pipe smoking hard bitten journalist who knows the whole city and is cynical enough to know who not to touch. Pepe grows as a reporter, slowly learning that those he works for as well as those who claim to be helping the Mexican workers are only interested in working with rich white people to enrich themselves. Despite the past that should have made him go into hiding, he’s a committed radical who questions the constant police abuse of Mexican laborers. As the novel unfolds his sense of fair play leads Durón to invite him to work with the Mexican Liberal Party (MLP) headed by the Magon brothers. Pepe isn’t sure at first if he wants to help, because his real interest is in finding out if his friend Seferino was murdered when the police arrested him the year before he started working for the paper. As the novel Pepe’s involvement with the MLP grows, Pepe grows closer to the Magon brothers, Durón and other supporters, such as radical unions, and Clarence Darrow. As the revolution the Magon brothers fought to achieve falls apart and they are arrested, it becomes increasingly clear that the Mexican government, California politicians and businessmen, and the wealthy Mexican Americans are only too happy to exploit Mexican immigrants. They use the power of the police to crush any resistance and even when the immigrants can organize, it is only a temporary victory. It is a world where they are subjected to racism, bad working conditions, and arbitrary forced evictions as LA grows. Ultimately, Pepe, who strangely is able to avoid prosecution, is taken in by the police and beaten. He is grilled until he tells what he knows. During the beating, though, he finally given the answer to the mystery of Seferino. As the novel closes he continues on with his muck racking journalism, refusing to write for the larger La Opinion and sticking with the smaller presses, his life of intrigue over, his commitment to the rights of the dispossessed as strong as ever.

As a novel of LA  Death and the American Dream has a certain charm. Cano is fairly effective in describing the WWI era LA, an LA that looks nothing like the one that took shape in the 30s and 40s and which set the template for modern LA. In his LA, Santa Monica is still a little town with unpaved streets and near by farms. It is an enchanting thought to imagine LA as it was once as a kind of Eden. Cano, too, likes to use that as a reference point to a larger one: LA was different 100 years before when it was part of Mexico and the land that is so easily divided up once belonged to others. It is from this interest he writes of the intermingling of international politics, muck racking journalism, and radical politics. He is obviously fascinated by the histories that converge in the city, especially the ones that have been hidden or lost. For many, the great rise of LA in literature comes in the 30s with noir and the golden age of Hollywood. Death and the American Dream is an extension of that literature.

As a novel, though, Death and the American Dream leaves a few things to be desired. Historical fiction is always tricky because it often seems to subordinate characters to events and personalities. Here Cano isn’t egregious but there is quite a bit of historical back ground given and it tends to weigh down the story. Perhaps if the book was a bit longer it wouldn’t have been a problem, but at 232 pages Death and the American Dream is a short book. That brevity effects the characters, especially Pepe, who doesn’t feel really present. It’s as if he were just floating along and things happen. There is not enough volition from him: events happen and then Pepe happens. It’s too bad because he has the sketch for an epic story filled with family life and the forgotten histories of that LA. Instead, the story seems to wander between politics and family life without a strong enough narrative thread. Finally, the writing is solid, what I would like any student of English to be able to do. However, it isn’t a powerful language and the use of journal entries as a story telling device particularly bugged me (in general I don’t think they are a good strategy).

Death and the American Dream is a valiant attempt at the LA novel. For someone obsessed with that literature it might be worth a read.

A Short Story from Dagoberto Gilb In the New Yorker

It has been a while since I’ve heard anything from Daboberto Gilb. I can remember liking his collection of short stories The Magic of Blood, but not his novel the Last Know Residence of Mickey Acuna. It is amazing how one bad book can completely turn you off to other books by a writer. He has a new story in the New Yorker. It is OK, very LA of a certain time, especially all his Dodger references. However, I wasn’t wowed by it, but it did have a certain charm. His style was a bit tedious, but at least, it didn’t have an epiphany for an ending.

Dagoberto Gilb: “Uncle Rock” : The New Yorker.

(500) Days of Summer – A Review

Romantic comedies are formulaic—boy meets girl, or some variation therein—and so it is a welcome change when a film can use those elements and tell an interesting story and even better, do it with a style that that is fresh and adds to the story telling. (500) Days of Summer is the story of a short relationship, 500 days, between Summer and Tom, two people who seem to share all the same interests—The Smiths, the Pixies—and get along so well, yet the relationship doesn’t work, and Tom is left wondering why.

What sets the film apart is how it goes about telling that story. The film is constructed around a non-liner plot where Tom tries to understand what went wrong. The non-linear structure allows the film makers to mix the happy scenes with the ones that show the problems, but also include commentaries from his 13 year-old sister who gives him dating advice, and his friends who know nothing. These elements allow the story to underscore not only his confusion, but Summer’s seemingly contradictory stance on relationships: shed doesn’t want a boyfriend, and yet instigates the relationship with Tom. Overlaying all of this is an occasional narrator who helps transition certain scenes and introduce the fundamental elements of the characters: Tom likes 80’s bands; Summer’s parents got divorced when she was a child and she said she would never make that mistake. Through these elements the story bounces between the idyllic and the disappointing and one is left to make sense of what really happened. In one effective use of split screen which seems influenced by Amelie, the director shows what Tom wanted to happen at a party and what really happened. It is a cleaver technique which illustrates well what Tom is thinking.  The film also relies heavily on musical montages to convey mood, rather than heavy expressions of dialog and it gives the film an impressionistic quality.

The characters, too, are a welcome change. Summer and Tom are both a bit quirky. He wears retro 60s suits with skinny ties, listens to alternative music from the 80s and dreams about changing the downtown LA architectural plan (Downtown LA’s classic architecture is a bit player in this film). She listens to the same music, thinks Ringo Starr was the best Beatle and dresses in 60s retro clothes, too. From the outset they play against romantic stereotypes, and the relationship seems marked more by what it isn’t, a couple looking for the wedding and children, then what it is a boy who wants a relationship with someone who says that will never happen. In this sense, the movie is much more interesting than most romantic comedies because it asks the question: if you don’t want to be tied down by a relationship, why are you in one? Summer instigates the relationship, so it seems she wants one, but them is to cynical, or afraid, or something to admit she wants one. If a relationship is confining, what is the alternative. For Summer it will be exactly what she claims it isn’t.

(500) Days of Summer is the right blend of style and reworking of the genre and shows that the romantic comedy (although there is a fair amount of drama, too) doesn’t have to be insipid.

Los Angeles, France, and the Search for a New Noir

Salonica has a great post from Larry Fondation about LA and the search for a writer that encompass the city. What makes it even more interesting is it was published in France as a kind of what Americans should do next. While Noir is a and LA are fascinating as our the American writers of the 30’s I’m not sure if they are the salvation Fondation sees.

Outside a select and celebrated few – Cain, Chandler and West among them — most 1930s authors have been neglected, forgotten, ignored or downplayed in the United States. Writers such as James T. Farrell, Ellen Glasgow, Jack Conroy and Henry Roth rarely get their due. Even John Dos Passos’ masterpiece, The USA Trilogy, remains vastly underappreciated.

Instead, many critics trumpet the Post-World War II era of American fiction as a kind of Golden Age.  I take the opposite view. Much of the literature of the past several decades has been overly introspective and self-indulgent. University writing programs turn out scores of harmless craftspeople, superficially skilled stylists who have nothing to say. Chain bookstore shelves are redolent with works of glittering shit, finely wrought bits of nothing, the fool’s gold of the written word.

For decades now, there has been no Fante, no Nelson Algren, no Jack London or Stephen Crane. Yet the new realities of our age, a time of limits, will force our literature once again to address the margins – as it did in the 1930s.  This will reinvigorate American literature, and great public fiction will again emerge from Los Angeles.  I am naturally suspicious of the glamour of gold.  But our times will almost forcibly birth a new era in American writing: the Literature of Iron — a fresh body of enduring, meaningful and deeply moving work, work that matters.

The social realism/noir of the writers, I’m not sure are the answer (although, perhaps no answer is needed), but there is a grit to them that sometimes seems to be missing. Unless you are into the Dirty Realism mentioned in the Program Era, where the external fight against society or the machinations that it closes in on one are replaced by the internal and self destructive so that in the former alcoholism is what a tough world forces on you, and in the latter humans self destruct because of weakness and inner daemons.

I do find his statement the NWA’s Straight Out of Compton the best novel of LA in the last 20 years to be spot on. Too bad that album has generated so many lesser imitations.

New Books on Mexican American Culture

The LA Times has an interesting review of two new books on Mexican American culture.Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968 (Refiguring American Music)
as the title says is about music in LA during the middle of the century and The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity about the Mexican form of wrestling. The review also includes a quick overview of some of the literature on Music and Mexican American culture that is quite useful and I wish more reviews did this.

Yet after digesting this book, I still felt something lacking. Though “Mexican American Mojo” does a great job of proving its point, Macías ends at 1968, just when the Chicano movement took hold and a new generation emerged along with its music. He clips his thesis just as it’s about to truly take off. (For a better accounting of what followed, I recommend “Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles,” “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California” and “An Oral History of DJ Culture from East Los Angeles.”) As it is, “Mexican American Mojo” can very well be Los Angeles’ version of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” — a volume everyone should own but few will ever read.

And about Lucha Libre

Heather Levi’s entertaining “The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations and Mexican National Identity” assumes the role of engaged anthropologist. Levi takes the novice into the world of lucha libre, veering between explaining the basics (moves, traditions, the difference between rudos and técnicos — bad and good guys, respectively) and recounting a thorough history of the sport, touching on major fighters, developments and its frequent intersections with Mexican politics and identity.