An insightful collection of stories that paint diverse portraits of present-day Los Angeles.
Johnson (Elsewhere, California, 2012, etc.) exposes the deep ruptures between her characters' relationships to one another, their surroundings, and their pasts. In “Rogues,” J.J., a broke college student, clashes with his older brother, Kenny. Kenny laughs off J.J.’s more idealistic worldview. “Sorry College,” he says after J.J. critiques his use of the n-word as a man of color. Later, Kenny states more bluntly, “Well Obama don’t live in this neighborhood, do he?” This question resonates as the story examines the consequences of race and racism on their lives. In the title story, Dean is haunted by the city’s past and the knowledge that he, too, will belong to the past one day. As he sits with his mother on the roof deck of his building in downtown Los Angeles, he imagines the city before he lived in it. Downtown has gotten nice, his mother notes. It’s all cleaned up. “And by all cleaned up,” Dean thinks, “she means, of people.” In “The Story of Biddy Mason,” Johnson’s timeline is widest and creates the most powerful view of the palimpsest of this American city. We see Los Angeles as it was shaped by two people in history: a white man from “good stock” who was a railroad magnate and art collector and a former slave who walked from Mississippi to California, where she became a philanthropist and founded a church. We end with an arresting second-person perspective that shows us the Los Angeles we might see today and what, if anything, we'd experience of those who came before us. The city doesn’t figure prominently in every story in the collection, but the themes of race, perspective, and history carry through.
Eleven poignant stories that look to the past to portray the present.