OC Bookly

OC Bookly in Little Armenia and West Covina:
Not Orange County. Elsewhere. (But Close!)
By Andrew Tonkovich
Sun., May 20 2012 at 8:00 AM

This modest blog's ostensible focus is OC reading, writing, literary
people and generally what the highly-opinionated Mr. Bib deems bookly
about our benighted, beatific and beloved county but, of course, no
county is an island entire of itself, every county is a piece of the
continent, a part of the main and, well, you know the rest. So, I'm
asking you bibliogals and bibliofellas to stretch your literary
geographical reach just a bit as I talk pretty this morning about two
novels which are still in the neighborhood, up the road apiece, in the
County of Los Angeles, where a sometimes parallel and often familiar,
and certainly connected, story unfolds.

Aris Janigian's This Angelic Land

Alas, This Angelic Land, the new novel by Aris Janigian, has yet to be
reviewed by the LA Times, which is a shame as the book's putative tie-in
"occasion" has come and gone, if not disappeared. The so-called LA
Riots, Uprising, Civil Disturbance, whatever, twenty years ago, is the
three-day and lifetimes-of-reflection ago-inducing event for a serious,
exciting, elegantly written novel about immigrants from, yup, Beirut,
Lebanon, who'd imagined perhaps some kind of new life only to find, of
course, that their new is new only in its own complications on the dread
story of community, hope and violence.

DJ Waldie, the Scribe of Lakewood, California, writes enthusiastically
over at Los Angeles Review of Books about the Fresno-born Janigian, an
eclectic and experienced writer in multiple genres. Waldie's imprimatur
should help sales, and maybe get the book the attention it deserves. By
the way, Waldie's own Holy Land, a great little book indeed, was
optioned by James Franco. Hey, Jimbo, please send a big check to Aris
J. immediately if you want another book that would make a great script.

Still, I admit I was not, frankly (or Franco), at all prepared forThis
Angelic Land. Janigian's earlier novels, Riverbig andBloodvine, are
terrific, sure, if much less ambitious. They seem to me a variety of
"first novels." Riverbig is about another fictionalized
autobiographical-seeming Armenian-American from, yes, the agricultural
Central Valley, a guy trying to reconcile the Genocide. It turns out to
be a mystery of sorts, with history and cultural conflict and class
analysis and mobsters. But with This Angelic Land, Janigian the author
finds, works and totally hits out of the ballpark all expectation of
those same themes with his mature, careful prose-stylist voice in a
combination of Beat poetic and ecstatic realist and historically
confident everyday political layering of the moments before, during, and
after the violence and catharsis that was (and is) the social earthquake
of April 1992.

The story is told by a distant yet emotionally intimate voice, an
authorial persona whose observations about the putative main character,
his brother, give the story urgency, and earn our trust. This point of
view gambit is so important, with the brother documentary film maker
Eric Deridian explaining to us--we soon guess why--what he has learned
of both the recent and long-ago moments in the life of his younger
brother Adam, a single guy who runs a club in Little Armenia, is ripped
off by his partner, takes home a troubled woman the night of the
verdict, maintains strong friendships with mentoring artist father-types
and struggles with despair as a kind of LA Everyman. His is only one, if
the the singular compelling story among the interconnected (as it must
be) compelling life stories, case studies for this "a day in the life"
(and death) of the city on fire and under fire.

This is one beautiful, ambitious, surprising book, which keeps the
reader engaged, provoked through a variety of straightforward yet
somehow mysteriously seductive narrative techniques, from the obvious if
essential TV reporters at the scene to long conversations with Adam's
philosopher king old dude buddies, to his own journals, with sly and
grim humor, too, especially from the old country parents an
grandparents, who find themselves in a sectarian, racialized,
class-ridden New World.

Not out yet (but soon) and available for pre-order is Elsewhere,
California, by Dana Johnson, author of the previous collection, short
stories, called Break Any Woman Down, which won the Flannery O'Connor
Award for Short Fiction. In Elsewhere we read the life of, Avery, a
young African-American girl who appeared in two stories from that
celebrated collection. This, then, is a first novel, a coming-of-age
book, but with a twist. Its simultaneous struggle to justify, explain,
make sense of the adult Avery is the parallel story, and one whose
theme of course happily corresponds to both the political moment,
civic anniversary-wise, and my own blogging needs on a Sunday morning!
Indeed. "cultural confusion," or, more politically, struggle, is a
familiar trope, but in the adult graphic artist who makes collages and
objects and looks for herself and finds in her own relationship to the
city and its other inhabitants we find more loss, and pain and wisdom
and ironies a-plenty.

Elswhere. It's near West Covina

Avery, who is beautiful (see author photo, above!), talented, insecure
and married to a loving, pushy, rich older man--an immigrant himself,
because this is Los Angeles where, if you have the scratch you can be
anybody--comes from a middle-class black family who leaves South LA
for West Covina. Complications ensue. So, yes, the well-told struggle
for a young black girl to try to figure out other people's racism and
class prejudice. But there's also her effort to figure out her
confused parents, and to see in action the generational journey from
the American South, in this case Tennessee. So, yes, teenage Black
English descriptions of 1970's pop culture, sexuality, the Dodgers,
"Soul Train," David Bowie. All is fair game, and none of it is fair,
this making of a worldview. It forms the aesthetics, politics,
personality of the adult Avery, whose show at a trendy mid-town art
gallery is the ostensible celebratory occasion for all of this
reflection, refraction, revision and, finally, reaffirmation, much
like, it turns out, her art. Yet this is not a feel-good novel. It is
too honest and rich and, in places cruel and complicated for that.
It's out in early June. Get a copy.

Cover art by Mark Vallen

Programming Note: I'll host readings by three terrific writers on
Wednesday night in celebration of the newest Santa Monica
Review. Reading will be contributors Michelle Chihara, Jonathan Cohen
and Dwight Yates. The event is free, with refreshments and camaraderie
organized by the UC Irvine bookstore. Humanities Instructional
Building HIB 135. 5 PM. See you there!

Elsewhere, California, Dana Johnson, Counterpoint, 304 ppp, $15.95
This Angelic Land, Aris Janigian, West of West, 234 pp, $18.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program
Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.