From here, observes Sesshu Foster, standing in a minimal parking lot with his nose to the breeze, “You can get a whiff of Farmer John.” He’s talking about the enormous southeast Los Angeles pork slaughterhouse a few blocks away, and he’s right: Today the air smells like dry dog food—with an edge. Some days the smell leans darkly toward the pig shit end of the aromatic spectrum, other days into the molasses sector. Farmer John is one small, fragrant corner of the “ever-expanding omniverse” described in Atomik Aztex, Foster’s first novel, which leaps fearlessly back and forth from 1940s Stalingrad, where an elite cadre of Aztec warriors is helping the Russians fend off invading Nazis, to “the frenetic hustle of overcrowded Teknotitlan,” capital of the “Aztek Socialist Imperium,” to the industrial back alleys of “some 3rd-class city called Los Angeles, someplace to the north. Kalifornia or some fucking thing, Western Civilization, the New World, they called it . . . ”
Except for a two-year MFA stint in Iowa City and a few collegiate years in the Bay Area, Foster has lived within a few miles of this spot for the last 40 years. Tall, with wiry dark hair going gray at the temples, Foster is a self-described half-breed, the offspring of a Japanese American mother and an Anglo father who was “part of that whole Beat Generation thing.” Foster’s voice drops occasionally into the slow Chicano rhythms of the East L.A. neighborhood in which his mother eventually settled down. But until his parents split when he was eight, Foster says, “the life we were living was this crazy American life of driving all over California, always being on the road, never having a place to stay, never having any money, not having food.” And while he cites Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs as major literary influences (though Ishmael Reed comes more immediately to mind), it’s in conscious reaction to that Beat-era art world of “alcoholic, profligate, dissolute, irresponsible white guys having their kicks and leaving town” that Foster has made a point of staying put.
“A lot of Anglo culture to me seems like it’s very restless—it’s about consuming what you can at the place you’re at and moving on to the next thing,” Foster says over a plate of barbacoa at a Mexican café blocks from Farmer John. “I thought that one of the solutions is to learn how to live in the place that you are and make your art from that.”
So Foster has worked hard to live out a sort of rooted urban regionalism. He’s been a key player in L.A.’s east-side poetry scene for years, and teaches writing in the local public schools. His last book, 1996’s City Terrace Field Manual, a collection of prose poems largely set in the eponymous neighborhood in which Foster grew up, mapped out a highly localized literary terrain in which political, cultural, and personal histories intimately intertwine.
In Atomik Aztex, Foster says, he wanted to get away from the barely veiled autobiography of his poems, “to do something that leaned on the imagination, that made it bear the burden of storytelling.”
The imagination leans back hard in Atomik Aztex, which folds kung fu showdowns with gangsta-tattooed Aztec warriors into the mix with moments of misty-alleyed L.A. noir; an Isaac Babel (“Isaak,” actually) in black leather; a naked, 400-pound Hermann Goering, emptied of entrails, bouncing down the steps of the Great Pyramid; brief flashes of barrio realism; and semi-lengthy quotes from Marx and Lenin. “Persons attempting to find a plot in this book should read Huck Finn,” Foster warns in a prefatory note, but there is one, sort of—it’s just happening in several parallel realities at once. Foster’s protagonist, Zenzontli, is at times a mildly henpecked “Keeper of the House of Darkness of the Azteks” sent off on a suicide mission to Stalingrad to collect Nazis with still-beating hearts for the state sacrificial rites (“It’s one of the great sadnesses of my life,” he laments, “that unknowingly I participated in the total destruction of the kool ancient civilizations of the Caucasians”), at times an insomniac immigrant with an alcoholic ex-wife and a worse than dead-end job slicing pigs into packageable pieces. This world, after all, “is some shifty joint where universes intersekt & spin away into new directions like car crashes on the Golden State Freeway.”
Behind all the koncentrated kraziness is a serious engagement with what Foster calls “prissy fucking History”—the grand, soggy compendium of untold stories, erasures, disappearances, and genocides that end up making most of our decisions for us. And spurring him, Foster admits, driving now, lunch and Farmer John behind us, is a Beat-inspired social critique, but with more pointed politics. “Part of the intent of the book is to talk about the sorry state of America that almost everybody—left, right, and center—hates,” Foster says. He waves one hand above the steering wheel, his gesture encompassing the miles of mini-malls, the passing cars, the stench-soaked air. “Is that it?” he laughs. “That’s it? That’s all we get?”