On the bookshelf
By Lou Mathews
Tiger Van: 240 pages, $ 27
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Every August of the past decade, Lou Mathews has vacuumed chili peppers on his kitchen table. He will use them in recipes throughout the year, but the ritual has become a sort of vacation: in the morning, he goes to Whittier and collects bushels and bushels of peppers; in the afternoon, guests arrived at his Beachwood Canyon home. They meticulously followed the directions Mathews emailed out, which included a history of the Hollywood sign, complex alternate routes in case you miss a turn, and a lengthy clip from Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust”.
They all come, really, for what Mathews calls his ‘legendary grilled cheese sandos’: between two pieces of fluffy white bread, he places a slice of Havarti on one side and Muenster on the other and garnishes the middle of the bread. chili peppers. He associates the sandwiches with a rosé that he seems to know intimately.
Mathews, 75, is a worker who has always used his hands: in the kitchen, on a car engine, in front of his computer. A former street racer and mechanic, he’s also a funny, generous and methodical person who, although hailed as an almost mythical writer around Los Angeles, has yet to get his due.
He has written seven books, but until this year he had only published two: “Just Like James,” a short story centered on a replica of James Dean’s wrecked Porsche; and “LA Breakdown”, an acclaimed street racing novel.
His third publication, “Trembling cityA novel of interconnected stories set in a fictional neighborhood in eastern LA from the 1980s, arrived in late August, in part thanks to a mentee’s willingness to cement their legacy. Jim gavin, the creator of the critically-acclaimed AMC series “Lodge 49” and a recurring guest at Chile’s annual celebration, said he owed a debt to Mathews “which has long been owed”.
In 2005, Gavin took a fiction writing class with Mathews whom he often cites as a turning point in his life. Mathews encouraged him, Gavin says, to turn his gaze to a place he knows best, the oft-overlooked pocket of Southern California where he grew up. After a collection of short stories, “Middle Men”, Gavin focused on television.
When AMC canceled “Lodge 49” (in which Mathews made an appearance) after two seasons, Gavin was left with free time and money to spare. In partnership with Prospect Park Books and Turner Publishing, he launched the Tiger Van Books label. His manifesto: “We believe in books. Our business model is failing. We plan to lose money and go to bed quickly. “Shaky Town” is his first title.
It’s a story Mathews tried to sell for much of his adulthood. “I generally received two responses to the manuscript,” the author said at the August meeting, after she finished making grilled cheese sandwiches for her family and friends. He sat down in an armchair in his living room, sipping rosé. “They were like, ‘It’s good writing, but we don’t know what it is.’ Or they’d say, “It’s good writing, but we can’t sell it.” … Anyway, I wasn’t giving them the version of Los Angeles they liked best.
It’s a Los Angeles that Mathews thinks New Yorkers want: a fictionalized LA in which “one of their own” skydives into town and explains the city to his friends on the East Coast. Mathews, on the contrary, lives in the texture of everyday life, in the sounds and images of the island communities that make up most of his work: the granular process of cooking a tamale; the intricacies of betting on an illegal street race; the art of the men who built the roads. He writes for them, towards the outskirts.
Mathews has always been very busy. It wasn’t until the age of 39 that he finally gave up – as he puts it – the “twisted wrenches” for a paycheck. (He always repairs motors, sometimes as a barter for artist paintings.) And it wasn’t until a few years later that he would transform into a full-time writer, working freelance for local outlets like LA Weekly and the late LA Reader, then, finally, become an instructor at UCLA Extension School.
He has been teaching there since 1989, guiding many of his students to a level of success that has eluded him. He thus created an entire community – a neighborhood, like Shaky Town, of his own making. You can’t talk about the literary world in LA without mentioning Lou. To name just a few of his students: J. Ryan Stradal, Eric Nusbaum, Dana johnson and, of course, Gavin. (Novelist Aimee Bender has applied for Mathew’s class more than once.) All the while, Mathews has quietly published fiction in some of the country’s most esteemed literary journals, such as the New England review.
“Lou was the first person to take me aside and say I was talented,” said Johnson, award-winning author (“Elsewhere, Calif.”) And professor at USC who met Mathews nearly. 30 years old. He encouraged her to get a master’s degree in creative writing, a degree she didn’t even know about. “I’ve never been told anything like this before,” Johnson added. “He was very direct. It was very inspiring.
Like his characters, Mathews remains a true working class man. He said he chose golf, a notoriously unpopular activity, because he was “sedentary” and couldn’t understand exercise without a somewhat practical purpose. (He only plays on municipal courses.)
In summary, Gavin said, “Lou’s work represents a kind of genuine worker realism that is out of fashion, if it ever was.”
Mathews spent much of his life in Los Angeles, with the exception of around 10 years in the North – during and after college at UC Santa Cruz – and some low-residency postgraduate work at Vermont College. The residents of Shaky Town, however, belong to Mathews’ teenage years in and around southern Glendale: a Korean store owner, Mr. Kim, buys a gun to ward off local drug addicts who assaulted his wife; art teacher returns home from community college job, repeatedly stopping to hammer tall boys as he reflects on his dying mother; a young woman tries to get her boyfriend out of jail by pretending to be his wife. (She channels the voice of an ex-girlfriend from the author’s youth.)
Mathews is perhaps the most adept at capturing the vibe and movement of a city in a certain way, as neglected as it has been. “As the sun sets, with the orange light behind it, and with the cars speeding up and the huge trucks changing shape every millisecond, the exchange becomes a monumental art, more complex and visionary than the land art documented in museums, ”says the art teacher. “I still think they should let the architects sign the pillars.”
If there is a human thread in the novel, it is Emiliano, the self-proclaimed mayor of Shaky Town, who gets four parts. In the first chapter, he tells his life and the history of the neighborhood to an unsuspecting man at a bus stop. He lost his son to polio, started drinking and then, drunk while working as a carpenter for the film industry, cut three fingers with a table saw. “Anytime you see John Wayne smash a chair over someone’s head?” He said to the stranger. “I built this chair.” This is the story of a man who tells stories – his stories, his truth – to whom will hear them.
In one of the final stories of “Shaky Town”, “Last Dance”, a woman named Anita Espinosa throws a birthday party at the community center, “what they now call the gymnasium in Coma Park”. She has been Emiliano’s neighbor for over 50 years. He has had minor arguments with Anita in the past which have turned into major affronts, but his neighbors harass him to go. He gives in, in large part because of the food he can eat there. When the priest does not show up, Emiliano acts as the host, giving an impromptu speech about his old friend. The music begins and the two waltz. Anita starts to cry into Emiliano’s shoulder, and you can’t really tell if those are tears of joy or of sadness.
It’s a beautiful moment: you make sacrifices for your neighbors. And then, over time, they reimburse you.
Norcia is a writer living in Los Angeles.