ON THE JOB

I have heard or read any number of imaginative descriptions applied to fiction, but none resonated so forcefully and vividly as Digby Wolfe’s approach. “Fiction,” this urbane writer, teacher and originator of the TV classic, “Laugh-In,” observed, “is the unthinkable come to pass.”

He offered his vision some years ago in a class we co-taught. Hearing it rendered me thoughtful and introspective well past the closing bell of the class. To this day, I am reminded of it when I finish a work that in some way shatters my boundaries of how far and how well I have been transported.

Some novels and short stories are like flying stand-by coach to a touristy location while others are reminders of the amenities in first-class travel. “L.A. Rex,” by Will Beall, is a sometimes-plangent, bordering-on-over-the-top first novel. It takes me to places I have been in previous fiction; then it moves well beyond, thanks in large measure to its relentless, often poetic language, its insistent sense of honesty, and its ensemble cast who walk with one foot on the pot-holed streets of south central Los Angeles, the other foot on the shiny, fabulous pavement of myth.

The author is a Los Angeles cop working out of the 77th Division, where much of the clientele is engaged in gang activity, cooking up batches of crank and amassing caches of weaponry. This is neither to say nor suggest that the majority of the locals are anything but law-abiding persons who are working to make some kind of a life for themselves in a fractured, tortured landscape. It is to say that Will Beall has intimate contact with a portion of Los Angeles you will not find in most tour guides.

Some of the more memorable short-story and book titles have an ironic undertone. “L.A. Rex,” king of L.A. Perhaps even L.A., king of cities. And for those familiar with the tribal nature of the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, perhaps even an ironic reference to tribal royalty. Dipping into the prologue of the novel, the reader will feel the irony of language and situation intruding on his sense of order and propriety with the same nonchalance as a one-item shopper cutting in a crowded check-out line during rush hour. Space is clearly being invaded. Boundaries are being crossed. But if you hold on past the prologue, you have not only admitted the intruder – you are fascinated by him at the same time you are appalled.

Two of the major players in the operatic “L.A. Rex” are Ben Halloran, a rookie cop fresh out of the academy, and the veteran Miguel Marquez, with whom – to the vast amusement of the other regulars – Halloran is partnered. Marquez, himself, could be what the author had in mind with the title, “L.A. Rex.” He is real enough and believable enough to remind me of the legendary LAPD homicide detective, John St. John, longtime owner of detective shield #1. Brusque, gritty, attracted to some of the most remarkably awful neckties imaginable, St. John was a focused and devoted member of the LAPD through 51 years of service.

Halloran’s creator, Will Beall, will surely remind readers of another cop who wrote on the job, Joe Wambaugh. So the question arises, why buy Beall, even truly good Beall, when you can get the old master Wambaugh? And the answer to that is best answered with another question. Why listen to Puccini when you already have Verdi? OK, let’s close the case with this observation: Both authors aim for and reach splendid destinations. But they are different destinations, arrived at by different routes. Will Beall’s cops would recognize and partner up with Wambaugh’s. Wambaugh’s cops may haze the rookies a bit as, indeed, Marquez sets up Halloran, but they would each trust the other because each is authentic.

Given this authenticity, having earned it before our very eyes, Halloran and Marquez quickly begin tracking a set of circumstances that lead them through an L.A. populated with competing gangs, a city bursting with racial tension, crooked cops and Eme, the Mexican Mafia, a hidden ruling class that does not appear on any ballot. Other major players include a lawyer and a self-styled Al Sharpton, both heavily into a desire to collect and use power. Life on the streets of the 77th Division is not covered in the L.A. Times, Sunset Magazine, or the bi-monthly magazine from the Auto Club.

Marquez quickly begins to realize that Ben’s knowledge and understanding are a bit too sophisticated for a rookie cop, a view that is enhanced when one of the few cops Marquez completely trusts, Detective Bae Chuin – a “five-foot nada with a pot belly and bifocals and he combed his black hair across a widening bald spot” – openly challenges Ben’s loyalties and identity.

At the end of this literally stunning narrative, Ben Halloran, repeat, Halloran, intones in perfect Hebrew the Kaddish, an ancient and revered tribute to The Creator on the occasion of the death of a relative or loved one. It is worth the ride to see who Ben Halloran really is.

But Will Beall does not stop there. Another ride worth the reading time is the storyline of Darius, up out of the brawl and violence of the gang wars to become “easily one of the most successful figures in the music industry,” head of his own major recording label. Furious over a disagreement with Ben, Darius precipitously storms out of Ben’s car and begins walking…”through the huge parking lot into the new Westlake Promenade, one of those upscale Mediterranean-style outdoor shopping centers with red tile and cupolas, a Toyland clock tower, bougainvillea dripping from decorative balconies. Sur La Table, Bristol Farms, Academy Optical, Bombay, Bed Bath & Beyond. A cigar wagon with green canvas awning and old fashioned wheels planted on the sidewalk.

“Right away, he had the prickling sensation of being watched, of being noticed, but not for his celebrity,” Beall continues. “Darius could still pitch speed dice or hot lead on any block from Croesus to Crenshaw, drop thousands on Krug for everyone at an after-hours club. What scared Darius, what really put him on check, was white people. And now he was alone and on foot in another country.”

“L.A. Rex” puts the reader in another country, one most of us – even native Angelinos – are relieved to see only from this fictional distance, amazed and disturbed that the likes of Will Beall not only patrol it but write of it on our behalf.