The West Coast is a Harsh, Yet Uber Rad, Mistress: Victoria Patterson & James Brown @ Skylight

1. I don’t know how y’all start readings in NYC, I assume only after enough car horns blow their fuses, but this is what gets the westside going: free corkscrews & mini-cupcakes drowning in hummus. 2. The Mercilessly Sexy Book Nerd Alarm is ringing off its bell.

These two authors/professors published by Counterpoint Press have joined to do several readings in support of their new books, Patterson’s novel This Vacant Paradise and Brown’s memoir This River, starting at Los Feliz’s Skylight Books. Both encapsulate tones I’ve gotten to know very well living out here — the weighty clamor of self-absorption & pretense coming from within the vastness of beauty make for many confusing love affairs and many markedly less-confusing breakdowns.

“She took a bite of her omelet while thinking of death.” Patterson stopped to laugh and read this line again, calling it the best line she’s ever written. This was that moment when ridiculousness re-asserts itself — when an emotional revolution is completed and the reader is freshly triggered to start from the top. I live to experience moments like that — dark becoming light in one seamless instant.

1. Wearing a dress for the first time in ten years, Patterson’s entire outfit was hand-me-downs (“Except the earrings!”) in loyalty to her main character, Esther, who was born after one of Victoria’s grad school professors joked about her setting The House of Mirth in 1990’s Newport Beach. 2. Some weeks I meet more writers named David than I meet liquor store clerks named David. Here’s one of the former contemplating the shit out of Patterson’s country club scene.

Patterson read from a section in which the vintage-clad, marriage-hungry Esther, who is engaged to a man she’s, “Pretending to desire,” meets her fiancee’s WASP parents for the first time, for lunch at their country club. Fleeing to the bathroom, “She didn’t want to return to the table, much less marry into the family…,” and once in the bathroom, she is told, “It was rude to vomit at the country club.” Patterson seems to think in this blunt, steady curve, where melodrama is as far away as the ideal and characters reach for a reality that they don’t know how to create, but can joke about.

1. Brown reading This River in front of the crowd at Skylight Books. It made me want to kidnap my father and journey north on a vision quest.

Jim, author of the beloved and recently optioned The Los Angeles Diaries, which details his tumultuous life leading up to his sobriety from alcohol and heroin, has clear presence in the room, but takes to the podium gingerly, like he’d rather be talking over coffee.

“This is the river of dreams, the river of stories, the river of his childhood.” Brown speaks of his roots, Oregon’s Chetco river, where his father grew up and later gave Jim & his brother some of their best moments together. Where he taught Jim what he has come to teach his sons- how to shoot a .22, how to pitch a tent, how to string tackle, how to bait & hook. Quotes from his dad appear in the section like breadcrumbs on a knotted path. About fish: “If you can see them, they can see you, and they wont bite.” The closest he got to organized religion: “What comes of the earth returns to the earth.” On hunting: “I would rather shoot a deer with a camera than with a gun.”

Brown came to the river ten years before to spread the ashes of his father and returned to spread the ashes of another man his sons never got to meet, his brother — the movie star. The first died from cancer, the next by his own hand, “a single shot to the head.” After telling their stories, Jim says, “I trust that one day I will follow this river with them.”

His father’s words, along with his river’s bounty of grounding, regenerative metaphors, seem to outline a loose western Taoism, where the unbiased flow of the natural world can reestablish an inner balance despite trauma, addiction, and Hollywood. Even though he asserts, “That man is dead,” he goes on to say, “There are no guarantees for people like me and I’m afraid I’ll let them down again.”

After the reading, I went up to talk to him. I told him how his story made me think of my dad, the eternal Eagle Scout. I say I’m not the outdoorsman he was, but that whenever I go camping I take his old gear — an ugly orange beanie, a ratty sleeping pad, thick, funky smelling socks, rusty pots, whatever I need. He smiled and said, “I carried my dad’s stuff around till it fell apart.”

–David Ohlsen, an LA native, received his BA in Creative Writing at UC Riverside and is a new contributor to Electric Dish.

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