Gary Reger

“Night falls quickly in Los Angeles,” observes the narrator of Alison Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965), “as in the desert which it once was.”[1] “The desert” looms over much fiction set in Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels to Bret Easton Ellis’s decadent rich of Less Than Zero (1985) or the quasi-future city of Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope (1996). The desert figures powerfully too in non-fictional treatments of the city, like Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946)[2] or Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990). These invocations of the desert might strike a positivist geographer as strange. The Los Angeles basin is not arid enough to count as a real desert. The greater Los Angeles region lies nestled in the clasp of mountains: the Santa Monicas north and west, beyond which lurks the little paradise of Santa Barbara; the San Gabriels, just north of the city, which link up, across Cajon Pass, with the towering San Bernardinos, culminating at their east end in the 11,503-foot peak of San Gorgonio; to the southeast, the basin-and-rangy ridges of the Santa Anas; and, beyond the Perris valley, the San Jacintos sheltering Palm Springs, with the Santa Rosas to their south. Beyond those mountains—north of the San Bernardinos, east of the San Jacintos—the great Mojave and Colorado deserts roll across an arid countryside all the way to Las Vegas, and beyond.

Cultural snobbery aside, Los Angeles is no desert.[3] By the standard definition of geographers, deserts receive annual rainfall under ten inches (c. 254 mm); Los Angeles’ average yearly accumulation of about 14.77 inches (c. 375.2 mm) situates the city safely out of the arid fold. Of course, interannual variation is considerable; across the 139 years for which records exist, Los Angeles has experienced a desert-level shortage 39 times, or about 1 year in 3.5. Anton Wagner insisted many years ago that microvariations abound; although the semi-arid steppe climate of the Köppen-Geiger BS classification predominates, topographical variation, coastal influences, and the sea all conspire to impose different climatic regimes across the broad LA basin.[4] Sober observers have known that Los Angeles isn’t desert. Los Angeles occupies, Carey McWilliams observed, “this fortunate coast walled off from the desert by the great arch of mountains….”[5] But the pull of the image is powerful, and fiction need not be bound by the strictures of the geographer. For many writers LA is a desert, not only metaphorically, but also in physical fact. LA as desert clearly has had deep meaning, literal or metaphoric or both, for writers seeking to evoke something of the feel of the city.[6] The desert carries multiple, sometimes opposing valences, both derived in western thinking from tropes in the Hebrew Bible. It is on the one hand a space of austere purification, where sins are atoned and the purified can see the face—or at least, hindquarters—of God, and on the other a vile, useless wasteland; other tropes come out of, or are related to, these two oppositions.


These two valences, I suggest, may explain, in part, the pull of the desert in writing about LA. On the one hand, the desert out east or north, the Mojave of Huxley’s Antelope Valley home or movie stars’ Palm Springs, may represent an escape from LA to something “realer” or “purer” (and see already the contrast between corrupt Hollywood and revivifying country in The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs [1923], although his rural setting is the mountains, not the desert[7]). Clay of Less Than Zero may be seeking something like this when he turns in memory to family time in Palm Springs (though in fact his family there is as corrupt and nihilistic as his life in Beverly Hills, as in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park [1955]). On the other hand, seen as plopped down in a desert, LA can be figured merely as the gaudy disguise of a desert wasteland, ready to reassert its hideous uselessness and, in fact, unable to foster anything genuine (“nothing means anything here,” is the refrain of The Nowhere City)—watered by stolen moisture, it is but an urban Imperial Valley, a faked landscape.[8]

These two topologies stand in dialectical opposition to each other. They demand from a writer a representational choice: is the relation of Los Angeles to the desert one of geographic distance and distinction, such that they occupy two different spaces that only come into conjunction through the movement of characters (whether physically or mentally) or the invasion of the space of Los Angeles by the desert itself or its representatives (the Santa Ana winds, in particular); or is the relation one of superposition, of a Los Angeles on a desert, a unique ecological and ideological phenomenon such that its intrusion into LA may come at any moment, in any place, here but not here, or indeed may shape the whole personality of the city by an invidious but invisible and irresistible presence below the surface? In what follows I would like to explore the play of these tropes, and others, in some fiction set in Los Angeles. Obviously far too much has been written about the city to treat even a modicum of this fiction,[9] and the themes I hope to elucidate hardly exhaust the ways the desert has been used in stories about LA. (I have left film and television completely aside.) But I hope that even such an incomplete, fragmented, and selective exploration may contribute to how we understand the ways the presence of the desert has shaped writers’ conceptualizations about this complex, alluring, frightening city.

 The desert in the American imaginary

Broadly speaking, American ideas about desert space derive from tropes deeply embedded in the Bible. These tropes do not form a coherent picture of desert space; rather, they facilitate a multiplicity of attitudes, some contradictory. In brief, biblical tropes frame the desert first as a blasted, dangerous place, abode of demons and death, abandoned by God. But the biblical desert also figures as a space where one can meet God, like Moses; the desert can be a visionary place. The biblical desert can also be a ground of testing and purification, a necessary preliminary to entrée to the Promised Land; or it can be a refuge, a safety zone for people escaping persecution or simply seeking a godly life. Finally, the desert can be a landscape of redemption: both for fallen people and as a ground that, with care and God’s help, can be made into—or returned to a preexisting—paradisiacal state, a garden in the desert. This cache of tropes served Americans to help make sense of the deserts they encountered as they moved into the arid West. To them was added, in the early twentieth century, by reaction, an insistence on desert beauty: a view that fed into the environmental movement around wilderness preservation.[10]

 First topology—the desert out there

The first topology is the desert out there: beyond Los Angeles, to the east and north, the desert one must cross and endure to reach the Promised Land, and to which one may escape or be exiled, whether to find a place of purity and cleanliness opposed to the corruption that has overtaken the Promised Land, or to serve out a punishment and (hopefully) find redemption. This desert sends its demonic emissaries into the city, borne especially on the Santa Ana winds.[11]

One important and complex role the “desert out there” plays is as a barrier or escape hatch. This theme links to the biblical tale of the Israelites’ passage through the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land, an analogy so blatantly apt to the travails of overland immigrants who suffered the Mojave and Colorado Deserts to reach California that it became a cliché. Desert as barrier or boundary pairs nicely with the Pacific to the west, thanks especially to the long trope of ocean as desert. So in 1897 Frank Norris bracketed San Francisco as between: “to the west the waste of the Pacific, to the east the wastes of the desert.” As another put it, “[t]he blinding blue desert of the Pacific….” Remember (“Mem”) Steddon, heroine of the 1922 Souls for Sale, takes a madcap drive with another actor along the coast highway, north of Hollywood, “‘on the rim of the world’ with desert on one side and the whole Pacific sea on the other.” Rose, the main character of Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea (1979), meditates on the boundaries of LA, desert and sea; Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) begins with a lapidary reference to “the black desert, beyond reach of Los Angeles.” The “long haul across the deserts” prevents good theatrical companies from playing Los Angeles, and passage over the desert—by airplane—brings F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last tycoon out of the rest of the country and into the inimitable LA.[12]


For a Forty-Niner like William Manly, whose exploits in escaping Death Valley in 1849 and then returning to rescue immigrants stranded there were immortalized in his autobiography, those deserts were a challenge and a test, but they can also serve LA as a protective barrier or a release valve, a safety hatch. The hero of Steve Erikson’s Amnesiascope longs for a thousand-mile wide Mojave to keep crazy eastern evangelicals out of his city. Later, he escapes Los Angeles through that same desert, which, he hopes, will reclaim as its own during his desert passage the “evil spirits” that have bedeviled him. Rose of Lithium for Medea finds in the desert beyond Los Angeles her refuge, her escape, a desert theme found much earlier in John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Indeed, for Mem of Souls for Sale crossing the desert west to east marks a return from the unreality of Los Angeles, that “terrifying city” (yet, simultaneously, “a restoring fountain of health and hope and ambition”), to a realer, and certainly duller, world; indeed, departing, “[s]he had a little of the feeling Eve must have had as she made her last walk down the quickest paths of Eden toward the gate that would not open again.” Mem’s train is even figured as the serpent. The two days it spends passing through the desert—a space which, Mem admits, “had its charms” and stands for the world she has left: a long, level vista of “dead platitudinous levels [that] made going easier,” for “[p]latitudes were labor saving and you went faster and safer over them.”[13] This desert is simply a metaphor for the life Mem left behind, stultifying and ambitionless, cramped, ruled by a rigid father, for the fountain of hope and happiness she found in her Hollywood successes.

In John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977), Desmond Spellacy is exiled to the desert in Twenty-Nine Palms outside Los Angeles in permanent penance-making after he’s caught up in scandal. Priest and advisor to the Cardinal of Los Angeles, Des had a long relationship with Jack Armstrong, one-time pimp and later corrupt contractor who did most of the building work for the Church. In an act of revenge by Des’s dishonest policeman brother Tommy, Armstrong is framed for the gruesome murder of Lois Fazenda, the “Virgin Tramp”—based on the actual “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947.[14] In Dunne’s dark vision, everything and everyone in Los Angeles is both corrupt and not what they seem: police detectives work as bagmen, nice girls service their bosses in back rooms, upstanding married barbers like to shave prostitutes’ pubes—and kill them.

The desert by Twenty-Nine Palms doesn’t know this corruption. To a parish priest trying to fix his car, Tommy conveys the trick of adding pepper to a defective carburetor learned in the used-car business. Parishioners’ problems run to dysfunctional bowels and young nuns vocationally confused; Des’s housekeeper avers “she had never been in a man’s room alone”—unlike virtually every other woman in True Confessions. (Tommy’s wife, Mary Margaret, is chaste, but she’s also insane.) For Des, the twenty-eight years he spends in desert exile (a little joke on the name of his desert town) provide an opportunity to reflect on his sins, to recognize the role played in his life and career by his lust for power and control—sins far worse than those of the flesh, as Des’s former confessor had known. The Egyptian desert fathers knew this too—they struggled against sexual desire, but were perfectly aware that, as sins go, it was hardly in a league with pride, power, and arrogance. It is living in the desert that helps Des not merely to see his own sinfulness—he has already been thinking about it throughout the novel—but to confront it and, as it were, make peace with it. This would have been impossible in Los Angeles; the contrast between the desert out there and the city could not be greater.[15]

The desert’s proximity, in other words, offers some writers about Los Angeles a convenient locale for the performance of contrition for sins committed in, and often abetted by, the city. In deploying the desert in this way, writers are playing right into that powerful trope of “the desert” in western imagination, the desert as a locus for punishment and expiation. It seems not excessive to propose that the degradation of Los Angeles, depicted in so much of the fiction set in the city as worse by orders of magnitude than that of other cities, should be counterbalanced by a harsh environment suited, in this conceptualization, only to wear away the accumulated filth of the sinful soul. Polar opposites on the moral and environmental meter stand shoulder to shoulder, ready on the one hand to foster husband killers, daughter rapists, and all manner of unspeakable human atrocity,[16] and on the other to redeem, through suffering and deprivation, the souls so befouled.


Another powerful contrast between desert and city plays out in John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939). Here the articulation between desert and city runs through the figure of Camilla, the object of Arturo Bandini’s lust, envy, anger, despair. Her sometime boyfriend Sammy, a would-be writer whose stories Bandini trashes, lives out in the Mojave Desert 150 miles from Bandini’s Bunker Hill hotel. Camilla moves back and forth between Sammy’s desert shack and Bandini’s dark urban landscape, but she is, in fundamental ways, in her sexuality, her shamelessness, linked to the desert, not unlike another desert woman, Barbara Worth of Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). The ironies in Ask the Dust are more subtle than in Dunne’s novel, for Camilla’s behavior violates—apparently—rules of “civilized” behavior—she sleeps around, she smokes pot, she returns to an abusive boyfriend—but in many respects she is a more genuine person, truer to herself, than Bandini and his city. In the end she abandons herself to the desert, walking off into the Mojave and vanishing over a ridge; her body is never found, and Ask the Dust ends with the startling image of Bandini inscribing a copy of his first book to her and heaving it out into the desert—an admission at once of love, loss, and defeat.

This external desert can, of course, invade Los Angeles, too. In Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) its desert dunes blanket the concrete of the city streets, like Sahara sand concealing the monuments of ancient Egypt; indeed, in this post-apocalyptic LA, the desert has spread everywhere. In The Day of the Locust (1939) Nathaniel West’s narrator Tod Hackett, gawking at a speaker at the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” muses that he “was probably just in from one of those colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts…. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome.”[17]

 The howling Santa Anas

Perhaps no dangerous desert intrusion into Los Angeles has resonated more with many of its writers than the Santa Ana winds, emblem of “the terrible hot season from June to September when a fiery wind blows from the desert and the sky turns blood red.”[18] An early version of their impact appears in On the Lot and Off, the last novel of George Chester and his wife Lilian Chester, published in 1924:

Shrieking and moaning, the wind swept in from the desert to take its eerie part in the life of Hollywood, to wield its mysterious influence on the fourth or fifth or whatever largest industry in the United States. It was one of those summer days rare to the Pacific coast, but poignant, when through the yellow sunlight there sift vague phantom shapes of impalpable dust which bite the skin and smart the eyes, and are the prickling forerunners of a three-day withering heat from out of the very heart of the vast shadeless inferno up yonder in the waste places. It was such a day as lowers the vitality and depresses the spirit and sets the nerves on edge, and when vitality ebbs and depression reigns and nerves are aquiver, both men and women do things which they might otherwise not have done; so no one knows what tremendous extent of folly and of tragedy might be chargeable to this same shrill, shrieking, moaning, sobbing wind from the deadly desert.[19]

The Santa Ana winds act more or less as a deus ex machina, for they effect the dénoument of the plot by driving several characters to actions they might otherwise have abjured, even sometimes against their own best interests.

On the Lot and Off has a potboiler of a plot, but the central thrust is just the efforts of the protagonist Izzy Iskowitz to gain control of his own motion picture studio. For this to happen, many unpredictable, evidently impossible things must occur, and it’s the Santa Ana winds that do the trick. So, for instance, the winds cause the owner of the Producer and Distributors Trust Company to place his wholly incompetent son Tennyson in charge of the bank at the very moment that the financially toppling Sam Black of Luna Pictures is begging for an extension on his loan:

but at that moment an exotic gust of wind from right out of the blistering pit of the dust whistled around the corner and between the classic gates and through the leaded-glass windows of Sam Black’s office, and smote him hip and thigh and blue-tipped nose with such an excruciatingly shivering blast that he yelled into the phone—insulting Tennyson and sealing his fate.

Later, in a crucial move in his plans, Izzy gets his boss David Schusshel to buy Luna, and again the wind is key: “On a cooler, less enervating day, David might have withstood…. But outside howled the desert wind, and through the screens there blew a steady stream of hot, enervating air, and David’s resistance was low; and he fell.” And Prudence Joy, the actress Izzy loved but could not marry, in thrall to a no-good husband and desperately in need of money, swallows her pride and begs Izzy for advice, sitting in his office “perfectly motionless while that gale from the desert shrieked and moaned and shrilled its mournful dirge outside, while the stinging heat which came from it seemed to dry up the very life in her.” The winds are determinative—except for Izzy, who’s immune to their effects.[20]


The Chesters don’t call their “desert wind” specifically the Santa Ana, but that’s clearly what they meant. In any case, these winds then howl through much subsequent LA fiction, especially what evolves into the noir detective story in the hands of Cain, Chandler, and others. Chandler’s own most famous description of the Santa Anas, which appeared in 1939 in the story “Red Wind,” has taken on an emblematic role, thanks in part to Joan Didion’s citation of it in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” Two years later Earl Stanley Gardiner, writing under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, cooked up an even more “extraordinary two pages” on the winds:

In the spring and late fall southern California has peculiarly violent desert windstorms known as “santanas,” sometimes called “Santa Anas.” For hours before such winds start, the sky will be clear and dustless. The air will be warm, listless, devoid of life. The details of objects can be seen with startling clarity. Silk or rayon garments will crackle with static electricity.

Then suddenly a blast of wind comes sweeping down from the east and north, a hot, dry wind which churns particles of dust so fine they filter between dry lips, grit against the surfaces of teeth. As a rule, those storms blow for three days and three nights. Those sections which are protected from the wind itself nevertheless feel the dehydrating effects of the dry, hot air. People’s nerves get raw. They are listless and irritable. Perspiration is sucked up by the dry air so the hot skin becomes gritty with dust.


One look at the star-studded sky, and I knew a santana was coming. Stars blazed down with such steady brilliance the heavens seemed filled to overflowing. The air out of doors seemed as close as it was in the study—warm, dry, devitalizing air that made one’s nerves stand on edge.


When I had finished the third chapter, the wind struck. It struck with the force of a solid wall. The house swayed with the force of that first terrific gust. All over the place I could hear doors slamming, could hear people running, and the sound of closing windows….

My nerves are always on edge during those windstorms.[21]

The effect of the Santa Anas—both the physical impact of dusty, obscured vision, a “dryness [that] is fairly stinging, like a slightly sour amphetamine,” and the psychological disorientation they bring—match well the mood of noir; “the evil,” Norman Klein notes, “is still in the atmosphere.”[22]

In Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957), it is “one of those icky desert winds we call the Santa Ana” that sparks “real drama” in the plot, “that very important element labeled by [Gidget’s high-school English] teacher Glicksberg as the ‘clincher’ or climax.” Gidget has earned herself a back-handed invitation to a luau on the Malibu beach, despite warnings that it would be an “orgy” (a word she has to look up in the dictionary). During the party “a creepy wind was blowing… like something coming right out of a furnace.” This Santa Ana, rushing down from the mountains and the desert and out to sea, turns back on the land and whips sparks carelessly spread by the revelers onto the sagebrush beyond the highway, fanning up a great roaring brush fire. The desert-spawned fire serves as a blatant metaphor for Gidget’s own raging but misdirected sexuality, for in the confusion, as police and fire trucks swoop down to contain the blaze and enlist the help of the partying surfers whose drunken carelessness caused the fire, Gidget cannot get home and ends up seeking shelter in the Kahoona’s beach hut. On his return he insists that it will be impossible for her to pass the cordon of police cars and fire trucks before morning; she can, he offers, sleep in his bed, while he takes the chair. Gidget, out of a mix of guilt—after all, he’s exhausted, having just spent several hours battling the flames while she dozed in his hut—and desire, voices a daring invitation: “‘Maybe you’re not comfortable in that chair. There is room enough in the bed for both of us here.’” He accepts, and Gidget reckons “this was the moment I had been waiting for. Now it would happen. He would make me a woman.” Instead, like the sudden rains that had just doused the brushfire, the Kahoona douses Gidget: “‘[W]hen it happens between you and a man it must be beautiful…. And it must be all for love, Franzie.’” (He uses her real name—a marker that this is serious.) “‘The time must be ripe. When the time is ripe—you’ll know. You’ll be trembling the way you tremble now—but it’ll be right. This isn’t.’” The desert brings a whirlwind of endangered virtue; luckily, a good patriarchal figure is there to protect Gidget from herself.[23]


In one of the “tales” called “Sirocco” in Eve Babitz’s collection Slow Days, Fast Company, her narrator[24] repudiates the trope of the evil Santa Ana winds. “From earliest childhood,” she insists, “I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds…. Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.” As with Gidget, the Santa Anas spell for Babitz’s narrator a potent sexual compulsion—but unlike with Gidget, there’s no “grown up man” around to hit the brakes. The narrator recounts two experiences, both connected with her “just friend” William, both involving other women, both prompted by the Santa Anas, however much she “hate[s] blaming things on the weather.”

The first, narrated with a certain coyness, revolves around an Italian named Isabella Farfalla, “bored with the ancient decadence that her own country provided” who, “like the Santa Anas” “was a devastating force… it was her nature to interject chaos at the very time things had about ossified.” At the opening of a new club Isabella and the narrator engage in some heavy petting:

“You two really looked beautiful,” William sighed about me and Isabella, “kissing each other like that.”

“Well, at least we looked beautiful,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“Maybe you really like women better,” he suggested. “Maybe that’s been it all along.”

“But what does one do with women?” I said, imagining at once exactly what one would do. “It was probably just the Santa Ana,” I said.

“You never kissed me like that,” he replied.

Her second experience came later, in October: “It was a Sunday and the Santa Ana had been afoot since the night before. It was so dry that the bougainvillea, picked, would embalm in the heat and last forever like Japanese paper flowers.” She gets a phone call from a friend, Day Tully, and invites her over; in the Santa Ana aridity Day’s “brown hair crackled from the lightning in the air.” The narrator suggests a walk to William’s; Day agrees, but cautions: “I hear this wind changes people into maniacs.” Indeed—soon after arrival at William’s and the consumption of “freezing-cold, green jigger glasses of vodka,” the narrator

was the first to pounce. What I wouldn’t do with Isabella, who knew what she was doing, I now smoothly instigated between Day and William and myself. Passion from boredom and vodka flashed through my veins, passion and fanned curiosity toppled us, Santa Ana-ed, down upon William’s bed. Only not William. I wouldn’t let William touch me, and we almost tore poor Day in half.

For Babitz’s narrator—or shall we drop the pretense and just call her “Eve”?—the Santa Ana madness brings happy release: “if we didn’t have the Santa Anas,” she concludes, “how straight we would all be.”[25]


In her celebration of the Santa Anas as a blatant catalyst for sexual experimentation Babitz plays a field she has mostly to herself. But the underlying trope remains the same; there’s no questioning of Day’s observation that the winds change folks into maniacs—they do indeed for Eve too, and fundamentally, she’s really no different from Gidget: both open themselves up to sexual experience under the influence of the winds, both indeed welcome the cover the Santa Ana mania grants to do something they have been wanting for a long time. And neither sees anything wrong with what they want—the swirling desert invitation to sexual adventure outside the bounds of marriage or heterosexual coupled conformity.

The Santa Ana winds, then, bring in the desert: a dangerous, unpredictable, socially destructive or disruptive force of nature. They are emblematic of the “dangerous desert” trope that sits at one of the two poles of desert imaginary discussed above. Corrosive, corrupting, disorienting, debilitating, the winds block thought, dissolve morals, wreak devastation; they are, so to speak, Satan and his desert demons embodied in a howling rush of air.

 The second topology—“underneath it all” [26]

The second topology clashes with a beloved trope about Los Angeles: that it is a paradise, an Eden set in a bedizened landscape; as such, the city becomes a sort of “Ellis Island of beauty” where people flock to join the American dream. This is the LA of the promotional literature churned out by the ream by California boosters in the nineteenth century (and in the recent series of California tourism ads starring celebrities) in which Los Angeles figured not as desert but an Edenic landscape, a paradise on Earth: “if not the original Eden, then a simulacrum that excelled the model.” Berthold Brecht, writing in his journal during his sojourn in LA, saw through the falsity, or so he thought—through the glittery surface of palm trees and hydrangeas, Art Deco office buildings and iconic hamburger stands, Hollywood back lots and ribbons of freeway: “as for culture: it decays unbelievably fast (like California’s artificial flora, planted on desert ground, when not watered),” for “all this greenery is wrested from the desert by irrigation systems, scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through.” Or, as Eve Babitz remarked, a propos a graffito, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”[27] This works, of course, because of an environmental trope about Los Angeles itself: that it sits in an arena of bountiful good health, beneficent climate, and easy living. Many years ago Carey McWilliams encapsulated this trope in a few lapidary pages of Southern California he called “The Folklore of Climatology.” Boosters like Samuel Stoney, writing in 1889, believed they’d “found a Paradise on Earth” where “lungers”—sufferers of tuberculosis—found relief, flowers and fruits proliferated, and the only fear possible enervation from living in paradise.[28]

This trope developed early in the city’s history. A proleptic Los Angeles as paradise appears already in Horace Bell’s 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, retrojected deep into the Spanish past. He imagines a trio of Spanish soldiers perched on a hill, enchanted by the scene below:

The plains and rolling hills had discarded their mantle of green and donned their sere robes of summer. Gazing toward the sun, which had now marked the first segment in the circle of its journey, plains, hills, forests, lakes, rivers, valleys, and towering mountains in a splendid panorama met their wondering vision. To the rear of where the three warriors sat… lay in silent beauty the shimmering waters of a beautiful lake sheltered from the rude blasts of the ocean by a rampart of kind and protecting hills. To the left for leagues could be traced the serpentine windings of the river…. Obliquely to their rear and looking southward to the sea the waters of the Porciuncula [River, later the Los Angeles River] swept by like a silver stripe in a ribbon of green, shaded by the umbrageous white-armed sycamore and the more verdant cottonwood, under whose protecting shades gamboled countless herds of deer and antelope, while still beyond are to be seen rocky islands in the ocean posted like knights in armor guarding the portals of Paradise.

One of the soldiers, shaking off his bedazzlement at “this vision of beauty,” thanks his commanding sergeant for “shar[ing] with us this foresight of Paradise.” It is, of course, the site of the future Los Angeles, chosen by “our Blessed Lady, the Angel Queen” herself.[29]

Standing in fervent opposition to this happy talk is what J.U. Peters has called “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” well represented by Dunne’s True Confessions. This Los Angeles of corruption, violence, fornication, debasement, and falsity Peters traces to the city’s decenteredness, its agglutination of suburbs, a “spatial disorder” that “suggests a deeper spatial implication: the jarring and dehumanizing shock of sudden displacement which the characters in many novels undergo.”[30] Indeed—but another contributor to this condition surely is also the “false tinsel” that lurks below: “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” and remains part of “this western desert.”[31] Remarkably similar language in novel after novel evokes the desert qualities of the Los Angeles scene: its “hot sun” in True Confessions or the “hot dry air” of Less Than Zero; the “parched and arid heat of Los Angeles” in See’s Golden Days, a “heat like a flat pan in the High Desert.” In Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan the Englishman Jeremy Pordage first perceives LA as “mountains—ridge after ridge as far as the eye could reach, a desiccated Scotland, empty under the blue desert sky.” Ross MacDonald’s cynical Lew Archer sees LA simply as “an urban wilderness in the desert.” And when an economic recession grips the film industry, “[t]he garden of Los Angeles had reverted to the desert.”[32] Not, be it noted, a desert, but the desert: the desert that had always been lurking there.


The Los Angeles desert frames Gavin Lambert’s 1954 novel The Slide Area from the first pages. Introducing his Los Angeles, Lambert’s narrator—a Hollywood script writer—stresses the city’s “impression of unreality”, reinforced by the “neurotic” “behavior of the air.” In fact “nothing belongs except the desert soil…. Because the earth is desert, its surface always has that terrible dusty brilliance.” The city rests on “land dried and crusted into desert… a quagmire under a hot sun”; it is, he insists, “difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert” where “buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert” and a motel stands “solitary in the desert of its parking lot.” Lambert isn’t completely consistent in seeing LA as built on a desert, for sometimes he remarks on the role of the “gritty mountains” in separating the city from “the dry Mojave desert” and he starts and ends his tale with electrical storms “near Palm Springs… out over the desert.” The predominant theme, though, is certainly Los Angeles as desert, and the desert fact of the city, its aridity, original emptiness, sterility, shape the stunted lives of the novel’s characters. The link is explicit in Lambert’s description of his friend Mark’s beach house after he has left for the South Pacific: it presents “[a] little desert of emptiness and stillness that people seem instinctively to avoid.”[33]

This theme is especially prominent in See’s Golden Days. The protagonist Edith Langley grows up “in the parched and arid heart of Los Angeles.” Returning after a sojourn in New York, she imagines LA as a plant in the desert, its extension from downtown “a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you’d love to live—if things went right.” Desert vegetation is tough, thorny, resistant to drought and abuse, but likewise not easy to approach—perhaps, in contrast to Edith’s initial impression, not so easy to live with. The house she buys on her return is tucked deep up Topanga Canyon, the “Old Canyon,” which “[s]ome people say… is the desert part”—although, in fact, “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” Yucca grow, taller than Edith’s daughters; there are rattlesnakes, neighbors warn, and Edith later watches two boys wrangle over possession of a three-foot long snake—but surely no rattler—that had unwisely slunk into the neighborhood market. The Canyon bakes in 120 degree heat, and, like all southwestern deserts, is subject both to flood and fire. The desert of LA impinges even on Edith’s wardrobe, as she switches from flannel shirts to silk blouses, “raw silk” being, she supposes, “the flannel of the desert.”[34] In other words, the desert does not simply frame See’s LA, offering a counterpoint out east, or north, over the passes, to serve as a locus for redemption or despair; the desert is LA, and living in the city becomes, for See’s protagonists, an adaptation to a desert world. In ways both blatant and subtle, the desert compels her characters to react to it—be it by shedding flannels for silk (the same projected persona, a different skin) or, eventually, by adapting to a nuclear-devastated landscape, a final act of desertification performed on a desert wasteland.[35]

While the deserts of Los Angeles barely inflect Aldous Huxley’s first LA novel, in his second novel written in California and set in Los Angeles, Ape and Essence (1948), the desert does not merely serve as a setting, but plays a central role in both plot and message. Two screenwriters, Bob Briggs and Huxley’s narrator, discover a rejected script in the slush pile submitted by a certain William Tallis. Intrigued, they travel out to see the author, a recluse living “on the southwest fringe of the Mojave desert.” Huxley draws a contrast between the “tough ascetic lives of the desert” and the cottonwoods and willows along irrigation ditches, “clinging precariously… to another, easier, more voluptuous mode of being.” Huxley’s desert outside LA immediately invokes the tension between the city itself, which can only exist by importation of water and thus promotes a morally corrupt way of life (already evident in the scripts Bob and his partner paw through), and an ascetic, and so purer, desert life—a framing that evokes also the role of the desert in Dunne’s True Confessions. Then, as Bob and the narrator approach Tallis’s house:

Out there, on the floor of the desert, there had been a noiseless, but almost explosive transformation. The clouds had shifted and the sun was now shining on the nearest of those abrupt and jagged buttes, which rose so inexplicably, like islands, out of the enormous plain. A moment before they had been black and dead. Now suddenly they had come to life between a shadowed foreground and a background of cloudy darkness. They shone as if with their own incandescence.

I touched Bob’s arm and pointed.

“Now do you understand why Tallis chooses to live at the end of this road?”[36]

Tallis’s script imagines a Los Angeles in 2108 after a nuclear war has devastated the United States. LA, “the great Metrollopis [sic] is a ghost town… what was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a wasteland…. Dunes of sand have drifted across the concrete.” The plot of Tellis’s movie revolves around the arrival in Southern California of an expedition from New Zealand that includes a botanist named Poole. Captured by the gang that rules the ruined city, he meets a young woman named Loola; they fall in love, but strict eugenics rules imposed by the gang forbid their relationship. Eventually Poole and Loola escape into the desert, across the San Gabriel Mountains, headed north for a supposed paradise where love is free and children can be conceived; to do so, they seek refuge and invisibility in the “enormous expanse of the Mojave desert,” the desert beyond the desert of Los Angeles.[37]


Thus the desert plays a multiplicity of roles in Ape and Essence: it is at once the “desert underneath,” the ecological reality of Los Angeles concealed—only temporarily, and always precariously—by an overlay of water and fakery; it is that ecological reality not created but simply revealed by the nuclear bombs that stripped away the “false tinsel”; it is a more genuine ecology “out there,” where Tallis lives and through which Poole and Loola escape; it is refuge.

Perhaps we are invited to imagine a better LA had its desert never been gussified with Hollywood falsity, or perhaps the desertified Los Angeles tyrannized by the Archimandrite and his acolytes is what it deserves. In any case, the “natural” desert is clearly the better place, even if it is tough and unforgiving. Poole and Loola, in the end, must serve an apprenticeship of suffering and purgation during their desert trek north, sore feet, little food, and thirty miles and more of painful walking. It is the desert as test, another desert sojourn to reach the Promised Land—California, love, happiness, children. Ape and Essence, then, may stand for a type—prefigured almost presciently in Philip Wylie’s 1943 short story “The Paradise Crater,” which government officials feared represented a leak in the Manhattan Project—scenarios of the Los Angeleno apocalypse, especially those predicated on nuclear annihilation, which evoke a return of the repressed when the LA underlying them has been figured as masked desert.[38]

In After the Bomb (1985) young Philip Singer, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend Cara survive a thermonuclear blast over LA because they happened to be lounging in an old bomb shelter in the brothers’ back yard. The book tells the story of Philip’s efforts to save his badly burned mother while moving through a ruined, post-nuclear landscape. The desert of After the Bomb bears, however, two valences, opposite and ironic. On the one hand, that Santa Ana which launches the plot adumbrates the desert-like destruction of the hydrogen bomb to come; on the other, it, and the desertification of the bomb itself, strip away the falsity of Los Angeles: Philip’s apparently omni-competent brother Matt proves hopeless, clueless, and almost useless, while Matt’s girlfriend Cara, whom Philip had hoped to snag for himself before his brother lured her away, now sees who’s really reliable in an emergency. In the end Matt’s redeemed, more or less; whether Cara will switch brothers remains undisclosed. But fundamentally it’s the falsity of the LA world that’s worn Philip down in his ordinary life that’s stripped away by desert wind and desertifying bomb—LA both invaded and revealed.[39]

The fundamental falsity of the desert materializes—deceptively—in its mirages, and Los Angeles is all mirage. So when Paul, a protagonist of Lurie’s The Nowhere City, drives through an LA cityscape “for once swept clear of smog by the desert winds”—the Santa Anas, as Lurie’s allusion to the season makes clear—“[t]he city shimmered in the dry, warm air, every detail sharp, but all colors bleached out by the intensity of the light, like a mirage.” Paul fears lest this mirage “wasn’t the harmless decorative sort, but one of those false visions that hover just above the horizon of the desert, luring travelers on to exhaustion and despair.”[40] So too people: in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940) “Helen Grayle”—in fact Velma Vanelto—started life as a sexually promiscuous chorus girl, but after eight years has succeeded—it seems—in burying her sordid past. The reinvented Helen is a “true product of Los Angeles, a city of resplendent surfaces”; she is “a figment, inspired by a culture that glorifies illusion….”[41] That is to say Helen is a mirage: that deceptive, fatal emanation of the desert, a confection of shimmering air with no more tangible reality than a passing breeze. This image suits perfectly Hollywood, that emblem of Los Angeles in so much fiction, whose primary function (that is, aside from coining profits for its studios) is simply to deliver a gullible public confected falsity as if it were something real.

Some final ruminations and unanswered questions

The whole congeries of desert imagery and Los Angeles fiction was captured succinctly in an essay by Charles Crow, who, evoking Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, writes of

the desert, that vast and troubling presence which most Angelenos would like to ignore. The paradox of Los Angeles, geographically, is that it is both a seacoast and a desert city…. [T]he ecology of the city is so fragile that it cannot hope to survive very long; at some point that aqueducts that are its arteries will fail… and the city will disappear…. The desert, lurking in the east, is the city’s doom. Out of the desert blow the Santa Ana winds, drying the hillsides and spreading the brush fires…. Deserts have always been places of prophecy and truth-seeking, and the message of this desert, “the hard empty white core of the world,” is annihilation, nothingness… [a place where] a man walked into the desert seeking God and was killed by a rattlesnake.[42]

Which is not to say, of course, that the man in question failed to find God; he may just not have found the God he thought he was looking for.[43]

Desert redemption, desert evil, the desert out there, desert demons borne into town on the Santa Anas—desert barrier, the desert below, the desert remade in nuclear annihilation, desert truth, desert falsity, abhorrence, fascination, attraction—so many deserts shape the city, in its fiction; without the desert, indeed, there is no fictional Los Angeles. Before we conclude, however, it behooves us to consider, briefly, some non-fictional treatments of Los Angeles, for the desert tropes—whether “out there” or “below”—seem often less prominent in such works. A certain tension between Los Angeles as desert and not-desert features in Mike Davis’s two dense and remarkable books about the city. The earlier City of Quartz (1990) starts with a tour of the desert ruins of the utopian community of Llano del Rio, which he calls explicitly “desert”; here and there in the book the notion recurs, although without much emphasis, yet with implicit approval. Everything has changed in Ecology of Fear (1999), which begins with a stark rejection of the desert trope as a self-serving notion designed to justify the continuing theft of water from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley. Instead, the Los Angeles region is seen as a Mediterranean climate—although, again, Davis sometimes reverts to the possibility of desert resurfacing or desert invasion, as when he notes that the last 150 years have been “anomalously mild, and therefore atypical”; the desert, we are warned, encroached on what is now Los Angeles during the “epic drought periods” of the Middle Ages. This Mediterranean trope—which we also touched on above in a passage from Harold Bell’s book—is abundantly clear in the booster literature of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, in which Southern California in general is a land of abundant good health, sunshine, and pleasure. Much of this literature figured Southern California as “our Mediterranean”—a view captured explicitly in the title of Peter Charles Remondino’s 1892 encomium, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions.[44]


Of course, Davis is right in Ecology of Fear, as were the old-time boosters: Los Angeles sits not in a desert but in a Köppen-Geiger BS climate, a steppe, as we noted at the start of this essay, and as Glen M. MacDonald argued cogently in a recent contribution to Boom.[45] Why, then, have the desert tropes of “out there” or “underneath” exercised such a magnetism on so many writers of fiction about LA? I have no definite answer to the question, which would require a much longer discussion than can be accommodated in a few words at the end of this essay. It does seem to me, however, that at least three drivers may be at work.

First, there is moral coding. Since LA is so often figured as corrupt, decadent, and unnatural, the desert, whether a space “out there” or a hidden underbelly to the city, can be figured as a moral opposite. The long-standing trope of desert redemption and purity, seen perhaps most blatantly in True Confessions of all the books studied here, can then serve as a space of purgation and moral repair. This moral opposition, however, can work in another way too: the desert can come into or rise up from underneath the city and sweep away its corruption, sterilizing an urbanscape subject to vile putrefaction. So Ape and Essence, much of the “LA holocaust” literature, Golden Days, and even Watkins’s recent Gold Fame Citrus.

Not unrelated, perhaps, is the sense of the desert as an escape hatch—a refuge, a place to escape the city, to find a more genuine life, or at least a chance to start over. This driver seems connected with a very powerful sense of the West in general as a place to “start over,” where you can shed old identities and baggage and become a new person; and certainly this notion is fundamentally intertwined with the myth of California itself, as a Promised Land where the new covenant can be struck.[46]

And then there is the simple distaste for Los Angeles as a city—a kind of revulsion that seems to infect an extraordinarily large proportion of literature about the city. Reyner Banham observed some decades ago that Los Angeles “gets attention, but it’s like the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences…”, abused by the “pedestrian litterateur who finds the place ‘a stinking sewer’ and stays only long enough to collect material for a hate-novel.” It would be easy to draw up a lengthy catalogue. For such writers there may be no better fate for Los Angeles than desertified obliteration; for, even a desert, repulsive as it may be, is still better than Los Angeles.[47]

This is all rather speculative and certainly incomplete. I have begged other important questions, too. Desert spaces (and the West more generally) have figured often in the American imaginary as emplaced on our continent for the express purpose of “white redemption”: the white male, emasculated or in danger of emasculation thanks to his exposure in urban space to dangerous “others,” especially the racially or ethnically different (not to mention women), may find his hope of recovery of his masculinity by lighting out for the desert, whose harshness tests, refines, and redeems him, themes well explored by Richard Slotkin and David Teague. The “whiteness” of this narrative trope brings up another unexplored question: the degree to which the whole framing of LA and the desert is entirely, or mostly, a white and/or upper-middle class preoccupation. Finally, there is the matter of “nature.” The desert trope carries an implicit dichotomy between urban LA as “not nature” and the desert as “nature.” But of course this whole construction—of the “wild,” the “natural” in opposition to the human “artificial”—has been thoroughly challenged by scholars as diverse in their interests as Roderick Nash, William Cronon, and for Los Angeles itself Jenny Price, in her now-classic essay “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” In other words, much of the literature I’ve examined here (and no doubt much I have missed) rests and depends on an opposition itself a confected dualism—not unlike the dichotomy of “desert out there” and “desert underneath” that I have suggested form the two topologies of the desert in LA.[48]



  • All photographs taken by and used with permission of Matt Gush ( All rights reserved.

[1] Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 12. On The Nowhere City in particular and Lurie’s fiction in general, see Julie Newman¸ Alison Lurie: A Critical Study (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000); Susan Watkins, “‘Women and Wives Mustn’t Go Near It’: Academia, Language, and Gender in the Novels of Alison Lurie,” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingeles 48 (2004): 129-146; Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles: Suburban Eden and the Fall into History,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin R. McNamara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 65-67. Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173, praised The Nowhere City as “the best fictive portrait to capture Los Angeles as it made the transition to supercity.”

[2] In a recent essay, Eric Avila claims Southern California “reads like a subtle case for ecological determinism” (“Essaying Los Angeles,” in McNamara [ed.], Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, 178), but McWilliams insisted on the mistake of seeing Southern California as wholly determined by its ecology; the cult of climate was, for him, “folklore” (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land [Salt Lake City: Peregrine Books, 2010], 96-112): although McWilliams admits that the climate there does indeed change people, he also insists that “the miraculous qualities of the climate were invented, not by the cynical residents of the region, but by the early tourist” (98).

[3] Although some working from smaller circumferences insist in continuing to call it one: most recently Vanessa Friedman, “Dior in the Desert,” The New York Times, 12 May 2017, (accessed 20 May 2017).

[4] From data at (accessed  19 May  2017). Anton Wagner, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Südkalifornie (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1936), 23, gives 379.7 mm as the annual average. On the European settlement-era ecosystems of the Los Angeles Basin, see Paula M. Schiffman, “The Los Angeles Prairie,” in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 38-51. D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 140, rightly writes, “[T]he Los Angeles plain is semiarid. It’s not exactly a desert.” Of course, with climate change, all bets are off.

[5] McWilliams, Southern California, 110 (originally 1946). See David Fine, “Introduction,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, ed. David Fine (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 17, characterizing Los Angeles as “a city almost literally carved out of a desert,” paraphrasing (I suppose) Richard Lehan, “The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 30, for whom “Los Angeles was crafted out of the desert.”

[6] In this essay I leave aside largely the literature treating Los Angeles as an eco-disaster—greedily gulping water from the Owens valley, degrading the sere landscape with acres of cheap, ugly houses, inviting deserved eco-obliteration or sheer decay (say, the now clichéd city of the film Blade Runner) or the eco-collapse of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015) or the milder but sadder critique of Waldie’s Holy Land. I do examine some of the literature of nuclear annihilation where such disaster evokes or uncovers desert LA.

[7] And see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Maid (1919), in which Earth’s salvation from Martian domination entails, among other things, the obliteration of Los Angeles; Michael Orth, “Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” Extrapolation 27 (1986): 226.

[8] See many of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), The White Album (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), and Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[9] Indeed: sixty years ago Carolyn See catalogued already 500 books set in Hollywood alone and read 300 of them for her dissertation “The Hollywood Novel: An Historical and Critical Study,”  unpublished dissertation (University of California, Los Angeles, 1963), a study more often cited, I suspect, than read (p. 1 for the numbers; 485-516, for the bibliography).

[10] For a thorough discussion of the Hebrew biblical tropes, see Laura Feldt, “Wilderness and the Hebrew Bible Religion—Fertility, Apostasy and Religious Transformation in the Pentatuch,” in Religion and Society: Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religion: Spacialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature, eds. Laura Feldt, Gustavo Benavides, and Kocku von Stuckard (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 55-94; see also Gary Reger, “Making the Desert American,” Cultural History 2 (2013): 167-174, and Diana K. Davis, The Arid Lands. History, Power, Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 23-47.

[11] So, perhaps, the winds were even responsible for the Watts Riots: Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015), 143-144.

[12] Frank Norris quoted in David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 3; Rupert Hughes, Souls for Sale (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978), 183 (“blinding blue”), 314 (madcap ride; originally published 1922); Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea [A Novel] (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 83; Cynthia Kadohata, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 1; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 340 (William R. Gowen, “Hoo-ray! ri! ro! row! roo! rah! Rupert Hughes and his ‘Dozen’,” Newsboy [November-December 1995]:13-16, offers a brief biography; Hughes served with the US Army Mexican Border Service in 1916 [p. 14], perhaps a source for some of the desert images in Souls for Sale?); F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 2003), 18. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 58-61, alludes to the sense that crossing “the great desert” (58) “often functions as a rite de passage” (57), but without developing the analogy to desert purgation in the exodus to the Promised Land; she quotes Dorothy Hughes, Dread Journey (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945), 138, on the three-day trip through a “wasteland.” See does, however, argue that the trip west marks “a period of penance” which “divests [the traveler] of his past and all its appurtenances”; he “metaphorically dies and is born again in the long eerie train trip across the Great West to Hollywood….” In an ironic twist, the Promised Land into which such travelers are reborn is not a land of milk and honey but the locus of “sins… so rarified and vile that in his old life he has perhaps never even heard of them…” (58).

[13] Steve Erikson, Amnesiascope: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 80, 217; Braverman, Lithium, 358-362; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 372-375. William L. Manly, Death Valley in ’49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer (Crabtree: The Narrative Press, 2001), 141, for a classic evocation of the desert as worthless space.

[14] George Pelecanos, “Introduction,” in John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), v. See Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 213-222, for a brief discussion. There have been multiple book-length studies of the case; the most recent is John Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 2015).

[15] Dunne, True Confessions, 340; see Des’s reflections on his fantasies about Mary Ginty, a parishioner whose husband went to prison: “He dreamed about her. That was all. He would awake in a state of arousal, his bedding wet from the nocturnal emission…. The impulses of the flesh were the darkest sins in Tommy’s canon. How wrong he was. Those impulses could be sublimated. Pride was a substitute. Power. The urge to manipulate. Vices that I have in abundance, Desmond Spellacy thought” (191). See, briefly but cogently, Michael Adams, “Sin and Guilt in the Fiction of John Gregory Dunne,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 25 (1984): 156. Timothy J. Meaghan, “Cops, Priests, and the Decline of Irish America: True Confessions (1981),” in Catholics in the Movies, ed. Colleen McDannell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 245, sees Des’s exile as situating him in “the desert… the empty space where relationships can be constructed,” but Des’s desert space is not in fact empty: it is full of people and pre-existing relationships.

[16] Husband killer: Phyllis Nirdlinger in Cain 1992 (original 1936); daughter rapist: Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974).

[17] Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), 62, 123. Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 2008), 98, suggestively remarks that in the film Blade Runner the city invades the desert, LA “smog finally destroying the desert climate itself.” Curiously, Hughes, Souls for Sale, 70 and 73, refers to a movie being made of Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, whose climax comes with the vicious assassination of the pagan woman mathematician by an enraged crowd of monks in from the desert.

[18] Gavin Lambert, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), 56. Wagner, Los Angeles, 26, calls the Santa Anas “föhnartige Wüstenwinde,” which seems about right; also Didion, Slouching, 218-219. McWilliams, Southern California, 10-11: “desert winds.” On the causes of these winds, see Mimi Hughes and Alex Hall, “Local and Synoptic Mechanisms Causing Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds,” Climate Dynamics 34 (2010): 847-857, and Sebastien Conil and Alex Hall, “Local Regimes of Atmospheric Variability: A Case Study of Southern California,” Journal of Climate 19 (2006): 4308-4325.

[19] George Randolph Chester and Lilian Chester, On the Lot and Off (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1924), 267. Briefly Chester’s life and career, Jenny E. Robb, “From the Periodical Archives: Winsor McCay, George Randolph Chester, and the Tale of the Jungle Imps,” Periodical Comics and Cartoons 17 (2007): 249-251. It should be noted that the Chesters’ book is saturated with the anti-Semitism so common in Hollywood novels.

[20] Chester and Chester, On the Lot, 285, 298-299, 275, 268; later, Meyer, Tennyson’s father, violates his own ethics by foreclosing on Luna: “it may have been the enervating wind from the desert” that did it (304).

[21] Raymond Chandler, Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 368 (originally published 1938); Didion, Slouching, 218-219; “extraordinary two pages”: Klein, History of Forgetting, 239; A.A. Fair [Earl Stanley Gardner], Double or Quits (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1941), 21-23. Chandler’s famous passage reads: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” As so often with Chandler, a mocking, ironic deflation at the end.

[22] Klein, History of Forgetting, 239, 240. For Joan Didion (White Album, 172), those days when “the wind is coming up” presages the onset of a migraine.

[23] Frederick Kohner, Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 2001), 124, 110 (orgy), 109, 124 and 128, 140-142; Klein, History of Forgetting, 81-83, on LA as “the city burning.” Gidget’s agonized sexual meditations are pretty blatant: “As I was lying in the darkness I felt real alone and helpless like never before in all my fifteen years. There wasn’t enough woman in me yet, and the gidget in me didn’t know how to handle it. Will it always be like this, I thought unhappily, will I always be scared of it and scared of being scared?” (140). Ironically, the Kahoona’s refusal denies Gidget the “climax” she expected. See Ilana Nash, “‘Nowhere Else to Go’: Gidget and the Construction of Adolescent Femininity,” Feminist Media Studies 2 (2002): 348, on the implications of this passage, and in general on the Gidget phenomenon and the patriarchy; but Nash exaggerates when she claims that Gidget never turns to her mother “for support and camaraderie” (352); at least in the first book, Gidget’s mother is the one who divines immediately that her daughter’s problems stem from sexual desire (see their conversation at Kohner, Gidget, 58-60), and her mother sides with her against her father by okaying her date with Moondoggie (91). For a brief account of Kohner’s career, Gerhard Mack, “Frederick Kohner,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band I. Kalifornien. Teil I, eds. John M. Spalek and Joseph Strelka (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 762-770; John M. Spalek, Joseph Strelka, and Sandra H. Hawrylchak (eds.), Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band 2. Kalifornien. Teil 1 (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 68-71, for a bibliography of Kohner’s work (to 1976). Kohner died in 1986. He does not figure in Erhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007), the most recent study known to me of the German colony in 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, which included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Berthold Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and many others; another account in Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 342-396 (Kohner and Gidget, very briefly, at 388-389); see also now Johannes Evelein, Literary Exiles from Nazi Germany (Rochester: Camden House, 2014) on German exile literature more generally. Didion White Album, 210-211, on a 1975 Santa Ana that blew “in off the Mojave for three weeks and set… 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire” and another, in 1978, that fanned a brush fire and “[w]ithin two hours… had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike” (White Album, 222-223).

[24] Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 71-83. “Tales” from the coyly ambiguous “Tales by Eve Babitz” on the title page: while categorized as “fiction,” it is hard to know whether Babitz’s narratives are invented at all, or just lightly disguised recountings of her own experiences.

[25] Babitz, Slow Days, 76 (italics in original); 74-75 (“just friends”); 76 (blaming weather); 79; 78 (long quotation, original italics—“it” because William wants the narrator but she’s refused to sleep with him; so like a man, to find relief in evidence that it’s not his own deficiencies that have turned a woman off); 80-81; 83.

[26] I steal my heading from the title of Traci Lords’ autobiography (Underneath It All [New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003]). Though exploration would take us much too far from Los Angeles and images of the desert, the same trope of “uncovering” the glitz to reveal something else, usually (but not always) sordid, vapid, arid, and sterile underneath, plays out in analogous ways in the pornography industry. Pornography itself relies literally on “uncovering,” by making visible bodies and sexual couplings, but is at the same time a false uncovering, in its meretricious depiction of sex and its urgent need to cover up the abuse, sexism, and violence that accompanies so much of its production. The San Fernando Valley was the epicenter of American pornographic filmmaking in the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s; with the spread of digital photography and cheap, high-quality cameras, the product has been democratized. Still, Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Berkeley: UC Press, 2012), 224, claim that “[a]ccording to one source, 90 percent of all legally distributed pornographic films are made in the San Fernando valley,” without, however, citing the “source.”

[27] Douglas C. Sackman, “A Garden of Worldly Delights,” in Land of Sunshine, 247, with further references to scholarship of boosterism at 329-330 n. 5; especially notable: Richard Orsi, “Selling the Golden State: A Study of Boosterism in Nineteenth-Century California,” unpublished dissertation (University of Wisconsin, 1973); Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 128-175 and Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 365-414; William Deverell and Douglas Flamming, “Race, Rhetoric, and Regional Identity: Boosting Los Angeles, 1880-1930,” in Power and Place in the North American West, eds. Richard White and John Findlay (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 117-143; and Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 59-91. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal. Zweiter Band, 1942 bis 1955, ed. Werner Hecht (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 293, entry for 9 August 1941, and 733, entry for 20 March 1945. This theme comes out especially nicely in Liahna Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 109-131. On Brecht in LA, see Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific, 69-147. Babitz, Slow Days, 8.

[28] See Starr, Inventing the Dream, 44-63, for an overview (Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 90-119, on Los Angeles in particular), and Orsi, “Selling the Golden State,” for a detailed study of booster literature. Samuel Stoney, To the Golden Land: Sketches of a Trip to Southern California (London: Walter Scott, 1889), 30, quoted without attribution in McWilliams, Southern California, 98; floral magnificence, 105; enervation, 107.

[29] Horace Bell, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 55-57.

[30] J.U. Peters, “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” in Itinerary: Criticism. Essays on California Writers, ed. Charles L. Crow (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1978), 24; see also Babener, “Chandler’s,” 115, and “Chinatown, City of Blight,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 243-244. Lambert, Slide Area, 18, calls Los Angeles “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.” Edward Soja, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (Berkeley: UC Press, 2014), 21-23, argues that this view of Los Angeles is now outdated.

[31] Mark Royden Winchell, “Fantasy Seen: Hollywood Fiction Since West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 148 with 166 n. 6; Carolyn See, Golden Days (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996), 121 and 6.

[32] Dunne, True Confessions, 203; Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 67; See, Golden Days, 4 and 7; Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 8: The contrasts between “nature” and “urban artifice” that surface in a few passages (see 10, 60, for example) are never developed. The inspiration for Swan, “his Hollywood novel” (Peter Munro Jack, “A New Novel by Aldous Huxley,” New York Times Book Review [28 January 1940], 2), came from the antics of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies: Franz Baldanza, “Huxley and Hearst,” in Itinerary, 35-47. David King Dunaway, Huxley in Hollywood (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 106-110, on the writing of Swan. J. Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool (New York: Knopf, 1950), 19; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 369. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 178-180, sees artificiality of setting as a fundamental structural feature of the Hollywood novel, though without mentioning the desert (but see also her more extended discussion of the role of climate at 388-402).

[33] Lambert, Slide Area, 15, 16-17, 35, 94, 15 and 211, 52.

[34] See, Golden Days, 4, 6, 9, 121, 10-11, 13. When Edith brings her business partner to be, Skip, home for the first time, her house, lights ablaze, looks “charmed, with golden light pouring from every window like a just-landed space ship” (21): a flying saucer touched down, appropriately, in the midst of the desert. On See’s fiction, see Davis, Ecology of Fear, 316-318; Fine, Imagining Los Angeles, 251-255; O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles,” 70-72. In Dunne, True Confessions, 82, Tom complains of his wife Mary Margaret, good Catholic girl: “It could be a hundred degrees with a hot dry wind off the desert and still she would wear flannel” to bed.

[35] See had already foreshadowed this desert beneath in her dissertation, where she wrote of a “parched” geography, “the constant assumption” in the Hollywood fiction she studied “that Southern California is a desert,” indeed a space that, after rain, “as soon as the sun comes out… again turns into an incipient desert” (“Hollywood Novel,” 388, 398, 392).

[36] Huxley, Ape, 17-18. Kerwin Lee Klein, “Westward, Utopia: Robert V. Hine, Aldous Huxley, and the Future of California History,” Pacific Historical Review 70 (2001): 474, makes the important observation that Ape and Essence “aired Huxley’s nostalgia for his lost desert years….”

[37] Huxley, Ape, 62, 202.

[38] On nuclear devastation in Los Angeles’ fiction, see David Seed, “Los Angeles’ Science Fiction Futures,” in Cambridge Companion, 123-134; a brief survey of Los Angeles literature in Davis, Ecology of Fear, 311-318, with a focus on See, Golden Days. For “The Paradise Crater,” see P.D. Smith, The Doomsday Men. The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 294. In The Nowhere City, Paul is awoken at 4 am one morning by terrific noise; “[h]e thought it was, first, a nightmare; then, an atomic war.” But it was just another instance of the constant re-invention of LA: a house being moved to make way for a freeway (Lurie, Nowhere City, 256). “For [Raymond] Chandler,” observes Liahna K. Babener in a trenchant essay, the “falsity is so prevalent that the truth, if it surfaces at all, is neither redeeming nor ameliorative” (“Chandler’s,” 111). If the underlying desert truth of Los Angeles in Ape and Essence be desert, then Babener’s observation becomes chillingly true.

[39] Gloria Miklowitz, After the Bomb (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1985), 2. Note, of course, the patriarchal trope: “Who will rescue me,” is the real question in Cara’s mind, “when true danger looms?”

[40] Lurie, Nowhere City, 285.

[41] Babener, “Chandler’s,” 120-121. “Helen Grayle” summons up “Holy Grail”—the unattainable object of unending search—and Helen of Troy, destroyer of men through sexual allurement and, in the Odyssey, memory-erasing drugs; Chandler, Stories, 767-984.

[42] Charles L. Crow, “Home and Transcendence in Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 194-195. The embedded quotation comes from Didion, Play It as It Lays, 162.

[43] As indeed Edward Abbey, writing of Datura meteloides, another desert hazard, remarked: “The correct dosage is said to be spiritually rewarding, but the problem is that a microgram too much may lead to convulsions, paralysis and death—also rewarding, perhaps, but usually considered premature” (Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1984], 88).

[44] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3-14 (Llano del Rio); 50: “Yet not all Europeans were estranged by either the façade or the desert behind it” (an implicit endorsement, I think); 82-83. Davis, Ecology of Fear, 10-14, 17-18 (Mediterranean climate); 25, 23 (quotations); 202 (LA now bordered by deserts and mountains rather than farms). Peter Charles Remondino, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1892). I am indebted to Boom’s anonymous reader for reminding me of the importance of this literature.

[45] Glen M. MacDonald, “The Myth of a Desert Metropolis,” Boom: A Journal of California 3 (Fall 2013): 86-94; see also

[46] See Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985).

[47] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971), 235 and 243; perhaps Banham had in mind something like The Flutter of an Eyelid, by Myron Brining (1933), or Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948). Much the same judgment on Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan in See, “Hollywood Novel,” (1963), 39, but of course Huxley never left.

[48] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). Also useful: Catrin Gersdorf, The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90; Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” in Land of Sunshine, 220-244. I owe many thanks with this essay. A previous version was presented in Reno, Nevada, at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Western Literature Association; my fellow panelists, Joseph William Morton and Sarah Nolan, and our moderator, Tyler Austin Nickl, made this a memorable occasion and contributed many suggestions for improvements. Kate Bergren and Heather Dundas read a draft, offered excellent comments, and encouraged submission to Boom. The anonymous reviewer read the text with remarkable care and sensitivity, and made many suggestions (including bibliography) for strengthening my argument. Any remaining idiocies are mine.

Gary Reger is Professor of History and Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His work on the ancient Greek and Roman economy began with Regionalism and Change in the Economy of Independent Delos and continues with a project, based on case studies, surveying Greco-Roman economic history, for which he received an NEH grant for 2017-2018. His other main interest is the history of human interaction with deserts broadly conceived across time and space. He has published essays on the southwestern deserts in Extrapolation and Cultural History and has in press a study of Roman reaction to the Sahara Desert.

Copyright: © 2017 Gary Reger. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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