Beloved LA writer and teacher Lou Mathews on the novel Shaky Town

On the shelf

Shaky city

By Lou Mathews
Tiger Van: 240 pages, $ 27

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Lou Mathews has had vacuum-sealed chilies on his kitchen counter every August for a decade. He’ll use them in recipes all year round, but the ritual has turned into something of a holiday: in the morning he goes to Whittier for bushels and bushels of peppers; In the afternoon the guests arrived at his home in Beachwood Canyon. They followed meticulous instructions emailed out by Mathews, including a history of the Hollywood sign, complicated alternate routes in case you miss a turn, and a long excerpt from Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust.”

They all actually come for what Mathews calls his “legendary toast-cheese-sandos”: Between two pieces of soft white bread he places a slice of Havarti on one side, Münster on the other and packs the middle with chillies. He pairs the sandwiches with a rosé that he seems to know well.

Mathews, 75, is a worker who has always used his hands: in the kitchen, on a car engine, on his computer. A former road racer and mechanic, he’s also a fun, generous, and methodical person who, despite being hailed as an almost mythical writer in Los Angeles, hasn’t got his rights as yet.

He has written seven books, but published only two of them by this year: “Just Like James,” a novella that revolves around a replica of James Dean’s crashed Porsche; and LA Breakdown, a widely acclaimed street racing novel.

His third release, Shaky Town, a linked-story novel set in a fictional 1980s neighborhood in east LA, came out in late August, thanks in part to a mentee’s efforts to cement his legacy. Jim Gavin, creator of the critically acclaimed AMC series “Lodge 49” and a regular at the annual Chile Celebration, said he owed Mathews a debt “that had long been repaid.”

In 2005, Gavin took a fiction course with Mathews, which he often describes as a turning point in his life. Matthews encouraged him, says Gavin, to focus his gaze on a place he knows best, the often-ignored corner of Southern California where he grew up. After collecting “Middle Men” short stories, Gavin shifted his focus to television.

When AMC canceled Lodge 49 (in which Mathews made a cameo) after two seasons, Gavin was left with free time and money. In collaboration with Prospect Park Books and Turner Publishing, he founded the imprint Tiger Van Books. His manifesto: “We believe in books. Our business model is failing. We plan to lose money and fold quickly. ”“ Shaky Town ”is his first title.

It’s a story Mathews tried to sell for much of his adulthood. “I’ve usually received two replies to the manuscript,” the author said at the August meeting after making grilled cheese sandwiches for his family and friends. He was sitting in an armchair in his living room and sipping rosé. “They said, ‘It’s well written, but we don’t know what it is.’ Or they said, ‘This is well written, but we can’t sell it.’ … In short, I didn’t give them back the version of Los Angeles they preferred. “

This is a Los Angeles that Mathews want New Yorkers: a romanticized LA, in which “one of her” parachutes into the city and explains the city to her friends on the east coast. Instead, Mathews lives in the texture of the mundane, in the sounds and sights 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 craftsmanship of the men who built the highways. He writes for her, in the outskirts.

As an example, he cited Tom Wolfe’s famous essay on a custom car show in Burbank, published in Esquire in 1963. “I was there,” said Mathews. “He didn’t do everything right.”

Mathews has always been exhausted. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he finally gave up – as he puts it – “turning a wrench” on a paycheck. (He still repairs engines, sometimes in exchange for paintings by artists.) And just a few years later, he turned into a full-time writer, freelancing for local media outlets like LA Weekly and the late LA Reader, and then, finally, an instructor at the UCLA Extension School.

He has been teaching there since 1989 and has led many of his students to successes that have escaped him before. In this way, he has nurtured an entire community – a neighborhood like Shaky Town that he created himself. You can’t discuss the literary world in LA without mentioning Lou. To name a few of his students: J. Ryan Stradal, Eric Nusbaum, Dana Johnson and of course Gavin. (Novelist Aimee Bender applied for Mathew’s class more than once.) Meanwhile, Mathews quietly published novels in some of the country’s most prestigious literary magazines, including the New England Review.

“Lou was the first person to pull me aside and say I had talent,” said Johnson, an award-winning Elsewhere, California writer and USC professor who met Mathews nearly 30 years ago. He encouraged her to do a Masters in Creative Writing, a degree she wasn’t even familiar with. “I had never been told anything like this before,” added Johnson. “He was very direct. It was very inspiring. “

Like his characters, Mathews remains a true working class man. He said he started golf, a notoriously non-working occupation, because he was “sedentary” and did not understand exercises without some practical purpose. (He only plays in communal courts.)

In summary, Gavin said, “Lou’s work represents a kind of authentic working class realism that is no longer in vogue, if it ever was.”

A man smiles at the camera.

“I haven’t given them back the version of Los Angeles they prefer,” Lou Mathews said of why publishers were suspicious of his novel Shaky Town.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Mathews lived in Los Angeles for much of his life, with the exception of about 10 years north – during and after college at UC Santa Cruz – and a few low-resident graduates from Vermont College. Shaky Town residents, however, are among Mathews’ youth in the southern Glendale area: a Korean shopkeeper, Mr. Kim, buys a gun to fend off the local drug users who attacked his wife; an art professor commutes home from his community college job, stopping and beating big boys while thinking about his dying mother; A young woman tries to get her boyfriend out of jail by posing as his wife. (She channels the voice of an ex-girlfriend from the author’s youth.)

Mathews is perhaps best at capturing the mood and movements of a city in ways that have been overlooked like him. “At sunset, with the orange light behind it and the speeding cars and huge trucks that change their shape in milliseconds, the junction becomes monumental art, more complex and visionary than the earth art documented in museums,” says the art professor. “I always think they should have the columns signed by the architects.”

If there is a human passage in the novel, it is Emiliano, the self-proclaimed mayor of Shaky Town, who gets four parts. In the opening chapter, he tells an unsuspecting man at a bus stop his life story and the history of the district. He lost his son to polio, began to drink, and then, drunk while doing carpentry work for the film industry, cut off three fingers with a table saw. “Whenever you see John Wayne breaking a chair over his head?” He says to the stranger. “I built this chair.” It is the story of a man who tells stories – his stories, his truth – to everyone who hears them.

In one of the last Shaky Town stories, Last Dance, a woman named Anita Espinosa throws herself a birthday party at the community center, “what they now call the high school in Coma Park.” She has been Emiliano’s neighbor for over 50 years. He’s had minor arguments with Anita in the past that have turned into major offenses, but his neighbors urge him to do so. He gives in, not least because of the food he can eat there. When the priest does not appear, Emiliano acts as host and gives an impromptu speech about his old friend. The music starts playing and the two waltzes. Anita begins to cry on Emiliano’s shoulder, and it is difficult to tell whether it is tears of joy or sadness.

It’s a beautiful moment: you are making sacrifices for your neighbors. And then they’ll pay you back on time.

Norcia is a writer and lives in Los Angeles.

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