September 5, 1971
Los Angeles a la Sodom and Gomorrah
By TOM McHALE
By Diane Johnson.
iane Johnson apparently has hit upon the solution to all those kooks, cultists, junkies, bogus professionals, displaced Midwesterners whose innocence is awash, police, firemen, Chicanos, Negroes and social workers who inhabit the easy cliché of Los Angeles: Simply burn the damn place down. At least this is what happens to an appreciable part of that sprawling metropolis toward the end of "Burning," and once the Biblical wrath and apocalyptic quality of this great fire is certain, the reader will probably issue a sigh of relief. Not because our continued and restless suckling on various moral tenets is finally vindicated by the flaming purification of Diane Johnson's Los Angeles a la Sodom and Gomorrah, but simply because the author has found the means to bring her book to a close. Phew.
Before the fire the horizon was dark. And, writer to writer, there was a lip-pursing concern in me to know how D.J. was going to do it. How to draw her serpentine chronicle of somewhat familiar deviate behavior (unfit mother, hooked psychotherapy patients, unabashed skinny-dipping firemen, etc.) to that finer point of resolution old timers called a climax.
The motif of "Burning" that never really gets its chance at bat is the supposed interdependence between the "straights" and the "deviants." The "straights" are Bingo and Barney Edwards, white liberal guiltists of Bel Air, she a short-haired, athletic-girl type from another era at Radcliffe, with a crush on a fireman she has seen swimming naked; he is an orthopedist. The "deviants" are everybody else in the house next door, which seems on particular days to encompass half of Los Angeles. Next door is the home cum office of Hal Harris, a shrink whose single response to the Hippocratic oath is a syringe of mind expander that removes his adoring patients from the reality of leather couch to a distant high confessional place, distant enough in fact so that Dr. Hal can leave the depressing therapy room for hours at a time to putter around in his half acre of beloved California succulents while his victim rewires his own neurotic circuits.
How the Harrises and Edwards are conjoined has little to do with neighborliness. Simply, the fire department orders the all-excluding hedge between their houses taken down, and there they are, finally face to face. It's shoot or smile, so the Edwards decide to smile, and the tendril-like vignettes of the novel's curious garden sprout in the soil of awfully easy satire. There has rarely been such an array of deflatable balloons conveniently at hand: kook psychiatrist, looney but worshipping lady patients, straight couple (with, however, occasional, unfulfilled deviant wishes) who try a long afternoon of lapping up the water in the horse trough on the "other" side of the street.
There are junkies, too. Lots of them, apparently, the patients of Dr. Hal, who keeps a few drugs around the place and helps them out with their habits. Only, how do you satirize a junkie? Unwittingly, though she tries hard for comedy, Diane Johnson may just have given us the best of "Burning" in her version of the sad, destroyed lives of two addicts. In the case of pathetic Maxine, and even more pathetic Noel, we can finally sniff character rather than caricature. Or perhaps it is merely the suggestion of poignancy in their steady march toward death- as it takes place in the midst of the mindless scurrying of a lot of other folk.
The afternoon of the evening of the Great Bel Air fire begins with a social visit by the Edwards to the Harrises. There are some preliminary Keystone Cops antics when a passel of firemen come to put out a wastebasket fire (symbolic precursor of the big burn that night, no doubt), and Bingo Edwards stifles some disturbing reflections about her marriage and sexuality because her naked (the day before) fireman is leading the passel.
The Jell-O really starts to set when Maxine Gartman, Dr. Hal's junkie-slave, informs them hysterically that the Child Welfare people are going to take her children away that very day. Bingo agrees to serve as sub-mother for Max's children, and spends a traumatic half day downtown at the Department of Child Welfare: "It's appalling. The Welfare system. Unbelievable. I feel like people who visit prisons." What the reader can best deduce, I suppose, from her tediously chronicled visit is that one of the principal reasons a white Bel Air liberal can remain a white Bel Air liberal is that she doesn't go downtown too much.
Barney, meanwhile, spends a good part of his afternoon in communal nakedness with two ladies. Dr. Hal, for his part, is investigated all afternoon by the narcs who are getting set to bust him that night during the fire when there are lots of firemen, regular police and Civil defense volunteers running around so the end of the book really will look like an apocalypse.
Fleeing burning Los Angeles, among others, are the innocent Lot and his wife- Barney and Bingo Edwards. The book does not say whether or not she is turned into a pillar of salt. Not literally, anyhow...
Tom McHale is the author of "Principato" and "Farragan's Retreat."
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