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Going Coastal: Revisiting the Seventies SoCal of Eve Babitz’s “Sex and Rage”

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Native Angeleno and besotted partisan of her hometown, the writer and polymath of pleasure Eve Babitz has often been defined by what she isn’t. She is the antithesis of Joan Didion, whose surveys of Southern California grimly chronicle anomie, and the inverse of Nathanael West, creator of some of Hollywood’s most grotesque residents. There are so few writers who love Los Angeles as much as Babitz does that perhaps her closest analogue, in terms of ardor for the city, is a fictional character in a movie: George, the unemployed architect played by Gary Lockwood in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969). Driving up to the Hollywood Hills, George takes in a spectacular view of L.A., later remarking to a friend, “I was really moved by the geometry of the place, its conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city.”

Growing up “tan, with streaky blond hair, and tar on the bottom of her feet,” Jacaranda Leven, the protagonist of Babitz’s kicky künstlerroman Sex and Rage — first published in 1979, and the third of her books to be reissued within the past two years, following Eve’s Hollywood (1974) and Slow Days, Fast Company (1977) — would probably like to take George surfing. “Jacaranda believed that the ocean was a giant lullaby god who could be seduced into seeing things her way and could bring forth great waves,” Babitz writes of her heroine, who isn’t too far removed from the woman who has created her. (Babitz’s novels are crossbreeds in which memoir is the dominant gene, fiction the recessive.)

Like Jacaranda, a peerless sybarite who dreamed of being an “adventuress-painter” as a kid, Babitz magnetizes. Her prose pops with bizarre aphorisms like this one: “People go through life eating lamb chops and breaking their mother’s hearts.” The author, who was born in 1943, is both wide- and gimlet-eyed, delighting in the beauty and magic of other people but ever-attuned to their failures and cruelties — especially Jacaranda’s. “She was twenty-eight. It was time for her to O.D., not get published,” Babitz writes, with typical blunt-yet-fizzy force. Even when cataloging ruinous behavior, particularly her heroine’s, Babitz never loses her buoyancy, her archness.

Jacaranda is a feral, sun-kissed bibliophile: “She had no sense of ‘sin’ and no manners,” Babitz notes. “She was the way she was by the Levens’ letting her alone to read” — her father, like the author’s real-life dad, is a studio musician for 20th Century Fox — “and she knew her way around Los Angeles like a Bedouin on his own two thousand square miles of trackless waste.” When she isn’t reading or surfing or painting surfboards or taking on admin gigs that don’t require her “to be in a regular office where they expected her to wear shoes,” Jacaranda is beguiling men and often sleeping with them. The details of these carnal encounters are mostly omitted, since Babitz does such an excellent job generalizing them: “What went on between men and women was based on a kind of enraged foundation that to Jacaranda could only be transcended through clashes-by-night sex.”

Babitz takes us to SoCal nightspots like Barney’s Beanery, where Jacaranda “drank beer and flirted with artists at night,” and the Bamboo Cafe, where she mischievously asks movie producers, “Are you really casting Cher as Medea?” It’s at the latter establishment that New York literary agent Janet Wilton, in town for business, approaches Jacaranda — who’s begun to publish magazine pieces, the first on surfing — about representing her. In a passage epitomizing Babitz’s gift for the piquant detail, the protagonist, stunned by this offer, struggles to make sense of what just happened: “Jacaranda tried to focus on Janet Wilton but all she could remember other than that voice” — earlier described as “cement” — “was that the woman was wearing ruby stud earrings.”

The hundred or so pages devoted to Jacaranda’s brief time in New York are peppered with wry observations about magazine editors (“They had to be at every birth of a new trend, every debut, every next year’s event, or person, or gang war”) and East Coast superciliousness (“Don’t say ‘far out’; even if you are from California,” her book editor admonishes). Crucially, this section of Sex and Rage also emphasizes Jacaranda’s pitiless self-reckoning. She cuts ties with the poisonous charmers she first met back home and re-encounters in Manhattan, like Max, who “smelled like a birthday party for small children,” and Etienne, “built like a lizard or a saluki.” She stops drinking two days before boarding the plane to New York, “terrified of going someplace and being drunk all the time.”

However raw and revealing this section may be, Babitz remains, as ever, piety-free. There will be no twelve-stepping for Jacaranda, for “she was too much of a surfer to go to A.A., so she just sat sobbing there in wonderment. No team sports for her.” She may not be part of a squad, but she has steadfast allegiances. During lunch with one of those overweening Gotham literati, Jacaranda thinks this: “She was awfully glad that L.A. didn’t have to be New York no matter what. No burritos. Or taquitos.”

Sex and Rage
Eve Babitz
Counterpoint Press
243 pp.

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