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To Live and Die in L.A.: Lionel Rolfe & Literary Los Angeles

In the wake of Christopher Dorner, Dr. Jerry Buss, even Huell Howser passing last month, life has demonstrated yet again that change is the only constant. We are surrounded by life, death and constant action whether we like it or not. This week L.A. Letters highlights a new book and recent events that celebrate life and death in Los Angeles.

One week ago on the morning of February 15 just after midnight, I heard a man and woman arguing out on the street in front of my house. I was up late writing this very column, I did my best to ignore it; I have heard it a few times before in our neighborhood. Twenty minutes later, I hear a series of gunshots. Ka-boom! Ka-boom! Ka-boom!! Damn near a dozen shots fired, I heard it all too well. I wasn't sure who was shot but I knew the shooting was close to the house because the shots were loud and clear. I'd heard gunshots before, but this was the closest and the loudest. My heart rate immediately jumped up as a barrage of different thoughts and what if scenarios raced through my brain. Was it that fighting couple? I thought about my wife and daughter downstairs asleep.

After the sirens and ambulances came I decided to go outside and see what happened. I saw a fire-truck, paramedics and a dozen cop cars on Atlantic. We live in Monterey Park and I noticed that some of the police cars were from Montebello and Alhambra. Helicopters were overhead and sirens were still coming. After a few steps across the street, I decided to go back in the house. It was 1 a.m, I had a writing deadline and nothing but trouble could come from being outside.

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The next day I learned the police fired the bullets. It was an officer involved shooting; a man was shot by police after he jumped out of the car with a gun in his hand. It turned out to be the same man that was fighting with his woman earlier. The police had been called about a domestic disturbance. I didn't see the shooting, but it happened less than 100 meters from my house. I heard both the couple arguing and then the man being fired upon by the officers a few minutes later. If he'd of kept his cool he'd still be here today. I heard it all too clear right outside my window.

The shooting of this man was just two days after the Dorner episode, and the second officer-involved shooting in Monterey Park over the last few months. The other one was near East L.A. College, just south of our house on Atlantic. Though I didn't witness either shooting, the climate of gun violence is everywhere. The loud gunfire I heard outside echoed through my mind all night and kept me up writing past sunrise. Needless to say it made me think of a wide range of thoughts, like what kind of world are we creating and what will the future be like for my daughter. In future columns I will write more about officer involved shootings and gun violence, this essay addresses life's fragility and the climate of life and death in our city.

'The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn,' Boryanabooks, 2013Veteran Los Angeles journalist Lionel Rolfe's new book, his seventh, "The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn" grapples with the cycle of life and death in an engaging tome Rolfe says he wrote while in an ever-shifting state between laughter and tears. The subtitle is "A Mostly True Memoir of California Journalism." The protagonist Ari Mendelsohn is clearly an alter ego of Rolfe. He throws caution to the wind, and the irreverence in the work is refreshing and often laugh out loud funny.

Mendelsohn is in many ways Rolfe's version of Charles Bukowski's "Henry Chinaski," or any other protagonist an author uses as a stand in for himself a la Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac. Furthermore, Rolfe uses this character to address his own regrets and the unanswered questions of his own life. While his other books are more straight ahead journalism, following a traditional nonfiction format, this work combines several slapstick episodes along with Rolfe's many insights on Los Angeles literary history, with political climate of the last half Century peppered through the narrative. Rolfe uses humor as a technique to make sense of these times.

Rolfe shared his perspective with me on the format of the book. He says, "the first chapter and the book's epilogue are the anchors of life and death -- with everything else merely linking them. They are the undergirding of the book. There was no artifice in writing that first chapter, or the epilogue."

Humor is a critical ingredient wielded by Rolfe to charge his prose. Perhaps the new book's funniest passage is the first chapter where Mendelsohn loses his virginity. Rolfe says, "The encounter between two virgins as described in the first chapter was written with full awareness that sex, as serious as it is to most of us, is a rather silly enterprise as well. It may be the truest chapter in the book if for no other reason than it is about the most primal thing in life. Everything else is journalism, philosophy, politics, literature, all that high-falutin' stuff that is no doubt terribly important. But sex is realer than anything else and less real at the same time. Sex is unreal, real, grotesque and ridiculous, sublime and terribly embarrassing."

After reading three of Rolfe's previous books, this chapter caught me off guard, but it managed to be very funny in an endearing way. Rolfe says, "I couldn't keep from laughing as I wrote of my pitiful first but deadly serious attempts to get laid. Not just the attempts, the foreplay so to speak, but the actual act. The only way to deal with the first time we lose our virginity, really, is to laugh -- and that's what I did when I liberated myself from concerns that I'd look terribly incorrect by letting it all hang out. I wrote like I was dropping my pants and running naked in the park." The freedom of his prose gives the book a surreal twist and a touch of the fantastic.

Born in 1942, Rolfe has recently entered his seventh decade and seems to be losing any inhibitions he may have had. The book is chock full of self-deprecating jokes, while still possessing life-affirming passages like his early days as a journalist in the Central Coast or his quirky romance with a Bulgarian woman. A hybrid of Rolfe's earlier books, this new collection reads quickly. The blend of humor and pathos within were clearly cathartic for the author and paint a fascinating account of the last half Century in Los Angeles.

Illustration by J. Michael Walker for Literature for Life

Before closing this column I want to note two recent events that show how Literary L.A. is more alive than ever. In early February I attended a benefit/reading for the educational website Literature for Life at a decadent home in San Marino. Organized by noted L.A. author and Professor Jervey Tervalon, the event featured the Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold, short story sensation Lisa Teasley, and the recent USC graduate Andrew Ramirez. The event was also a prelude to the Pasadena Lit Fest, where many of the same authors will be reading in on May 11. Tervalon was joined by Pasadena literary figures like J. Michael Walker, Sophia Kercher, Rosalind Helfand, Tom Coston and Mary Blodgett.

Jonathan Gold read a story called "Man Bites Prawn," about eating live prawn in Koreatown. Similar to Rolfe, Gold uses humor masterfully in his work. He read the piece off his iPhone and it was priceless to hear him read it live after following his work for the last 15 years. Gold lamented eating live prawn and comically addressed Los Angeles life and death in his lucid prose. The many writers and literary personalities present shared lots of laughs.

A forthcoming event to be held in Downtown's new Grand Park also testifies to the vitality of Literary Los Angeles. Next Saturday, March 2, the first annual Grand Avenue Book Fair will be held, featuring over 40 authors and countless local publishers and booksellers. Intended to celebrate the vibrant literary culture of our city, the event will feature L.A.'s Poet Laureate Eloise Klein Healey, venues like the Last Bookstore, and presentations devoted to children's literature among many other readings. For further detail on this, check the detailed blog post by Writ Large Press Publisher Chiwan Choi.

Writers like Lionel Rolfe and Jonathan Gold show the multifaceted nature of our city. In the midst of gun violence, police shootings and the general madness of our time, these figures demonstrate that literature and humor can be used to deal with this uncertainty and even provide some temporary solace. There clearly needs to be more solutions concerning gun violence and the climate on the streets. At least we have writers like Rolfe and Gold using humor as a panacea, and events like the Grand Avenue Book Fair to rally the city together. There's no telling what type of atmosphere we would be battling without these authors or events. I am very thankful for the healing power inherently present in the realm of L.A. Letters.


Top: LAPD Midnight Raid. Photo by Chris Yarzab used under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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