Reviewed by Nancy Spiller
by Lou Mathews
Tiger Van Books
Aug 2021, Hardcover, 240 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1735303802
If you land on an East Los Angeles bus bench chatting with a self-proclaimed Shaky Town mayor, Emiliano Gomez, let the coaches fly by as you listen to his tales, the destinations they offer are of far greater value. Shaky Town by Lou Mathews is a linked short story collection filled with the working-class concerns of L.A.’s barrio, circa 1980s. In our rapidly gentrifying world, it’s a group of saints and sinners not heard from in a long time, and certainly not in such a caring, unflinching fashion. It brought to mind Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, a 1970 novel of his native Stockton, a classic of the down-and-out in California genre. Mathews is a fourth-generation East Side Angeleno who was a car mechanic and a street racer. His author’s bio bravely, endearingly, claims to have written seven books but previously only published two, including L.A. Breakdown, about those fast and furious knuckleheads. This book, he has said, took 12 years to get published. You’ll thank him for not throwing away his wrench.
In Shaky Town, Mathews expertly shows us how things work and why they break down, taking apart and putting back together a range of small, yet fully felt lives. His overlapping worlds are mapped in prose that shimmers like hammered copper. He knows this territory well: you don’t doubt that when a certain bug shrinks the leaves of a eugenia hedge, more of a morose neighbor’s sad guitar music will bleed through.
Despite serious setbacks, Emiliano remains big hearted and tender. Once making a living carving beautiful breakaway furniture for movie studios, only to have it destroyed in fight scenes, he first loses his beloved son, then three fingers while drunkenly running a wood lathe. How he loses their replacements as a Beverly Hills garbage man is the stuff of prank legends and proof he retains his sense of humor.
In the Pushcart Prize winning and much anthologized story, “Crazy Life,” with its unforgettable opening line: “Chewy called me from the jail,” we listen as Dulcie, a tough barrio Chica, determinedly tries to save her boyfriend. In “Con Safos Rifa,” cops thwart a rival high school rumble, yet lives are still lost. Just before tragedy strikes, there is a glorious description of two brothers in their street finery doing a “bop” walk out of the police station.
In “The Garlic Eater,” a Korean immigrant suffers the cruel joke of seeking a better life running a ghetto convenience store. “Huevos” starts with a pack of teenage boys egging on a Hollywood Halloween night, their mission quickly descending into chaos and brutality, ending with a dead rat impaled on a lit road flare. It perfectly, horribly, captures their sense of entrapment in a crude, ignorant life where violence can seem the only option.
But even opportunities for escape have their dark side. In “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siqueiros Painting,” an adjunct art instructor at a “third-rate school” faces his mother’s terminal cancer and his own limits during an interminable freeway commute. Along the way there are numerous stops for food, drink and rumination, accompanied by grand descriptions of freeway travel: “At sunset…the interchange becomes monumental art…I always think they should let the architects sign the pillars.” They are as unknown, he continues, “as the architects of the pyramids.”
In one of many pitch perfect transitions, Mathews moves from a sun “flattening to an egg before dropping below the mountains,” to: “The doctors couldn’t agree about the tumor.” The narrator wonders if less personal talent and a less engaged mother might have kept him from his fate as booze swilling, half-employed freeway flyer, finding happiness instead as a local celebrity with his own body shop. Ah, mi amigo, be careful what you wish for.
This feels like a novel typed on a manual machine, a compliment in this age of buzzing word processors. Except for the final chapter, “Ride the Black Horse,” Shaky Town’s constituents don’t suffer the region’s more familiar natural disasters–fire, flood, and quake. They suffer instead the loss of loved ones, weak spirits, too much booze, not enough sex, the coming of cancer, all wearing them down, like the brake pads on a car stuck in stop and go traffic. But then there’s the revivifying food—tamales, burritos, enchiladas and cheeseburgers. In another of Emiliano’s wry observations, he claims Mexicans conquered the Spaniards with their food, not vice versa. Who would kill a population that could cook like that? Indigenous North American tribes had nothing better to offer than fry bread. Where are they now? Case closed.
Another clever and funny tale comes with “A Curse on Chavez Ravine,” and its’ perfectly plausible explanation for the home team’s endless losing streak. What did they expect after displacing an entire community to build Dodger stadium?
“The Last Dance” is my favorite of the collection. Emiliano sets aside a neighborly grudge to grace the prickly Dona Anita’s “coronation” of a 75th Birthday Bash. Mundane moments are made magical. When popping out of his Barcalounger, Emiliano notes “that’s why they’re worth the extra money, they lift you like an angel.” More on this I will not say, but it struck me as an East L.A. iteration of Joyce’s “The Dead.” And if there is any justice in the world, a movie will be made of it.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an L.A. novel without the obligatory earthquake. Mathews’ twist on this comes in the final entry, “Ride the Black Horse.” The admonishment was Emiliano’s grandfather’s response to earthquakes when he was a child in Mexico. The advice to embrace the bucking wild is good for all who live on the sprawling city’s unstable ground, whether high society or low. Trust Lou Mathews on that, you will survive and be the better for it.
About the reviewer: Nancy Spiller is a writer and artist currently living in Los Angeles. A fourth generation California native, she was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a graduate of San Francisco State University. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction has appeared in the Rain City Review. She lives with her husband and their dog in a coastal canyon on Los Angeles’ wild western edge. She is the author of: Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned from My Mother’s Recipe Box. and Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (With Recipes)and teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.