Post Road Magazine #21


Janice Shapiro

In a perfect world, Eve Babitz would have been my babysitter. It isn't impossible to imagine. We both grew up in Los Angeles (although Eve was in the much cooler Hollywood Hills and me, alas, in the Valley) and the age difference would have worked. When she was a teenager, I was a child. Growing up, my sisters and I worshipped our teenaged babysitter. She was everything we wanted to be: pretty, popular, funny, and dangerously bad. Our babysitter was our demigod, an extremely powerful figure whose every move, idea, and word spoken was instantly engraved on our hearts. We wanted to grow up and be just like her but somehow knew it would never happen. I still feel the same way when I read Eve Babitz. I want to grow up and be just like her, even though I am now a middle-aged woman and she, even older, has vanished from the literary world; my favorite book of hers, Slow Days, Fast Company, was written in 1977 and is long out of print.

So, what exactly makes Eve Babitz's life as presented in these ten stories so irresistible, one may ask. Well, who wouldn't want to be a beautiful, brave, charming, brilliant, insightful, and daring young woman in L.A. in the late 1960s and 1970s with the energy and drive to be at all of the right places and meet all of the right people? Who wouldn't want to be friends with rock stars and heiresses, girlfriends of actors and artists, mistresses of studio executives? Who wouldn't want to be greeted warmly at the hippest restaurants and be seated at tables filled with Italian designers and American wannabe's? Who wouldn't want to be free of the guilt and sense of self-preservation that keeps most of us from overindulging in wine and cocaine and stepping into wanton ménage-a-trois's as if they were nothing more remarkable than a hot, steaming bath? Who would not want to arrive early for a party and find the only other guest present to be Marlon Brando? Who wouldn't want to be the girl who can't walk to the mail box without being hit upon by a legion of men?

The truth is that when you're as voluptuous and un-hair-sprayed as I am, you have to cover yourself in un-ironed muumuus to walk to the corner and mail a letter. Men take one look and start calculating how they can get rid of the obstacles and where the closest bed would be.

I, mean, really! Who wouldn't want to be her?

Like Babitz' first book, Eve's Hollywood, Slow Days, Fast Company, is billed as a work of fiction and I believe she did make things up, but the stories are so quirky and oddly formed, the narrator's voice so consistent, that it all feels completely real. The connecting element of the collection is Eve, our narrator, who in each story shares an experience, a relationship, an insight into life as it was in Los Angeles in the 1970s. There is sex (never explicitly described) and drugs (rarely explicitly described) and as can also be expected in a book set in that time period, an underlying search for self. And there is always Los Angeles.

It is impossible to separate Eve Babitz from Los Angeles. She, born and raised and never to leave, possesses a deep understanding of place that makes her affection for the city all the more poignant. She delivers L.A. to the reader with a sureness, resignation, and defensive pride that both celebrates Los Angeles and warns of what really lurks behind the city's glittery curtain. The first story opens with a description of Forest Lawn, the famous cemetery, introducing the specter of darkness which is present throughout the deceptively light-hearted book. Babitz's fast company is a charmed group, movie stars on the ascension, producers and studio executives at the top of their games, Janis Joplin floating alone in a motel swimming pool at the peak of her success. But Babitz, child of Hollywood, knows the weather patterns of her city well and is aware of how quickly the bright skies of fame and fortune can cloud over, and even when you find yourself standing in the glaring light of success it isn't always as wonderful as we have been led to believe.

I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it's held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you're talking about.

Everyone has his or her role models—the people we aspire to be even while acknowledging the impossibility of being anyone other than ourselves. But sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we find the teacher who will share with us her knowledge and insight and skills that enrich our perceptions, deepen our knowledge, solidify our understanding. Or have a babysitter who will let us sit on her lap and study the precise way she expertly applies frosted pink polish to each one of her perfectly shaped nails. Or discover a writer who is talented enough, clever enough, and generous enough to lay herself bare before us, one who is willing to swing open the door to her world, her perceptions, and her insights and invites us in to share the fun and the excitement and inevitable pain that accompanies even the most sparkling and enviable of lives.

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