“Uneasy Suspension”   Leave a comment


Gerald Leake’s frontispiece for The Boosters

I finished reading Mark Lee Luther’s The Boosters (1923) the same night I watched John Cassavetes’s film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Novel & movie were separated by more than the half-century between their respective release dates, representing contrasting visions of L.A. as destination, as destiny—but they tell similar stories about the Los Angeles River.

The novel offers a cheery narrative of Bostonian George Hammond, who heads to Los Angeles as a once-capable architect turned dyspeptic business failure. Goaded by his wife Harriet, who has California roots, the family take the train west. Through genial adaptability, considerable luck, the pluck of his children, & the reemergence of his latent talents, George’s fortunes reverse, his digestion is righted, the family flourishes. The L.A. they experience is a land of sunshine, opportunity, romance, & the occasional earthquake; it has hills, beaches, off-shore islands, & oil-fields, but no river worthy of mention.

The film also tells the tale of a man from the East Coast transplanted to the West. Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), originally from NYC, owns a LA strip club, believes in style, & manages his affairs congenially if not quite successfully. In an early scene, after paying off a gambling debt & knocking back a couple scotch-&-waters, he talks with Eddie, a helpful cab-driver also from NYC, about the old days. Eddie (played by Eddie Shaw), from lower Manhattan, says of former uptowner Cosmo, “At least you had the river, the beautiful river,” & Cosmo smiles as he remembers swimming in the East River. Eddie says he used to go to the Hudson, then after a little more nostalgia, says, “But now were going home.” “Where?” “Your house.” “There’s no river there, Eddie.”

In both tales the river is missing—a superfluity for Hammond’s rise, an absence of fluidity in Vittelli’s fall. Joan Didion wrote that “California is a place in which a boom mentality & a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 174). Here too is where we run out of water.



Posted February 2, 2014 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

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