Knowing full well that every city’s defining sights take up only a scant percentage of the whole, Lou Mathews has spent much of his life chronicling the ignored sectors of Los Angeles. His stories investigate the ways in which our best and worst tendencies play out in community—and the paradoxical manner in which community itself both preys upon and elevates the individuals within it. Yet, like the broken neighborhoods his fiction documents, Lou Mathews’s work has remained rather close to the shadows, its many qualities passed over as readers make their way to established literary landmarks. This is an unfair oversight that his newest work, Shaky Town, is poised to correct.
Shaky Town is a tough and beautiful mural of a novel constructed though interwoven short stories that explore the streets of East Los Angeles in the 1980s. Eschewing even the faintest strain of stereotypical L.A. glam, Shaky Town is populated with chain link fences instead of pools, pollution instead of seashores, and the “watercolor sadness of smog,” as an art professor tells his students.
Like the city itself, Shaky Town is situated precariously on a latticework of geological, interpersonal, and psychological fault lines. The characters and locations crisscross each other’s narratives, providing the novel’s natural sense of zoning. Throughout the book, our through-line is Emiliano, the self-appointed mayor of Shaky Town. We are first introduced to Emiliano in “Emiliano Part I: The Mayor Proclaims” as he chats up a “constituent” at a bus stop, trying to convince him that they share a knowledge of Spanish. When the “constituent” denies this, Emiliano says, “You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno… That’s part of the language,” which causes a chuckle and a small degree of camaraderie. In Lou Mathews’s capable hands, it is enough.
And it is essential: after this fleeting moment, the stories veer sharply into tragedy, beginning with Emiliano recapping his long life in Shaky Town. Employed, years prior, by the movie industry to make breakaway furniture for fight scenes, Emiliano lost three of his fingers while working drunk after his son died of polio. “I measured wrong… The table saw didn’t care.”
Soon after, in “Crazy Life,” we follow Dulcie Gomez as she goes to the police station to advocate for her boyfriend, Chuey, freshly arrested for his role as wheel man in a drive-by. Chuey now shares a cell with the Mephistophelian Sleepy Chavez, who did the actual shooting and threw the gun out the window to blur responsibility. Dulcie knows if Chuey betrays Sleepy, he is putting himself in immediate danger from the gang. But, if he doesn’t, he will take the fall and enter the legal system. So, Dulcie watches helplessly as Chuey shuts down in indecision and the lawyer “packs his briefcase and walks away, shaking hands with everybody. The TV is waiting for him outside.” Though Chuey will eventually choose, we already know neither choice leads to good things.
“The Garlic Eater” finds Mr. Kim buying a local grocery store, in which he proudly displays Korean flags and products behind the counter. His wife “thought it was foolish to put the only goods their customers wouldn’t steal behind the counter, but Mr. Kim liked the display.” Immediately after opening, Mr. Kim is greeted with the tough realities of his new neighborhood and, shortly after his wife is brutally beaten by the junkies he is trying to fend off, he decides to stand his ground—and to buy a gun.
Providing the emotional center of the book, “Emiliano Part II: A Curse on Chavez Ravine” recounts the redevelopment Chavez Ravine in the 1950’s to accommodate the construction of Dodger Stadium. The stadium, Emiliano says, is built upon a place that once was “like living in the hill country of Mexico. No paved streets, no sewers, no electricity… It smelled like Mexico. Woodsmoke, chiles… tortillas, and beans. Roosters woke you in the morning, but you could see City Hall.” But the city unscrupulously repossessed the land from residents, and the final holdouts were forcibly removed. Emiliano recounts how his Aunt Lupe fought the city by chaining herself to her house. When she failed to stop the demolition, she put a curse “on any Latino who played for the Dodgers.”
Then, with “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siqueiros Painting,” we return to the book’s current time, as an art professor punctuates his commute with liquor stores and drinks his way home, “safe: inside the car, behind the [sun]glasses, surrounded by music” while his mother is in a nearby hospital, dying from cancer.
In “Con Safos Rifa,” aimless machismo drives a group of St. Patrick’s high school students to arrange a fight with students from a rival school. As it turns out, the fight would have been a rout aided by local gang members had the St. Patrick’s students not first been arrested while waiting for their opponents to arrive.
Again and again, oddly graceful moments present themselves as the antidotes to the haze of violence and self-destruction. Emiliano, in “Emiliano Part III: Last Dance,” delivers a speech praising a neighbor he resents at her 75th birthday party after the priest scheduled to give the speech doesn’t show up. Emiliano paints a lush and flattering portrait for the crowd and, though he doesn’t believe his own words, his speech is a balm for his neighbor’s hidden emotional wounds. After the speech, he dances with her while the band plays her unfaithful late husband’s favorite song, then he leads “her to the dark corner of the gym so that her family won’t see her crying and blame me.”
In the eponymous novella occupying the bulk of the book’s closing, Brother Cyril, the newly appointed dean of discipline at St. Patrick’s, discovers his position was previously occupied by a priest who had molested numerous children. Learning the school’s new marble alter table had recently been donated by the diocese in exchange for the school’s willingness to harbor the priest, Brother Cyril takes a hammer and destroys the gift. His faith in the church shattered, he turns to alcohol and prostitution.
Finally, with “Emiliano Part IV: Ride the Black Horse,” we are presented with a panoramic view of the earthquake we’ve long been sensing. Providing a perfect coda, Emiliano describes how the landscape itself loses solidity. “The freeways looked like gray snakes rippling upward… The hills of Elysian Park humped and twisted.”
Lou Mathews never shies away from exploring the way integrity so often becomes a liability diametrically opposed to self-preservation. Again and again, the social, emotional, and economic fissures that striate Shaky Town are exposed by sudden bursts of pent-up aggression. Our choice of actions may not be easy, Mathews reminds us, but it is usually clear: though there is often no reward, do the right thing.
With Shaky Town, Lou Mathews has constructed a prismatic singularity replete with elegant and empathetic renderings of people forced to weigh difficult choices. The stories gleam, despite their sadness, with the glow of every person’s potential to rise above the wreckage that surrounds them or, if nothing else, to go down swinging for what they know, beyond all else, is true.