An elegy for the city that once was ridiculed as the mecca of mellow and is now ridiculed as the capital of free-floating hostility. Los Angeles Times columnist Martinez applies wit, compassion, and a thorough knowledge of the turf to a mostly predictable series of subjects, including gangs, crime, health nuts, fires, earthquakes, bizarre architecture, celebrities, and the ""abused, downtrodden, miserable San Fernando Valley,"" which produces 80 percent of America's adult videos within the ruins of the model family-oriented suburb. A minor flaw is that the reader is constantly reminded of the author's day job: The book is written in short, punchy passages, and the insights are sharper than they are deep. But Martinez offers keen studies of, among other topics, the reptilian morality of the television industry (for which he has written), the bland corruption of local politics, and the inner city that lies a universe away from the Hollywood dream factory. ""So many of the young men of the 'hood have died in violence,"" he writes, ""that it is no longer a single reportable statistic, but a sadness that overlays the black ghetto like a mist of grief."" Martinez is especially good on the Rodney King riots, the fate of the hapless streets on which the freeways have been brutally built, the blasâ€š silliness of the star-studded Malibu beach community, and Angelenos' reaction to a naked woman striding down a busy thoroughfare (indifference, except for those drivers who curse her for delaying the commute). The great unanswered question Martinez raises about L.A. is why anyone, himself included, would continue to live there. This ""drive-by portrait"" is a good ride.