Noir for real

Feb 12, 2003 at 12:00 am

Seething with the energy of streets, bars and bedrooms, Los Angeles author Larry Fondation’s second book reads like a collaboration among Elmore Leonard, Dennis Cooper and Eminem. Its author may well be the best unknown writer in America — and this brilliant collection of short fiction will probably not change that.

Fondation, a community organizer with a history of working in Compton, doesn’t write long books. Although better and more accessible than his 1994 novel, Angry Nights — an obscure masterpiece that can still be found in print only because nobody bought it — Common Criminals is even shorter, coming in at only 81 pages. Fondation believes that in a culture shaped by TV shows and music videos, there is a potential market for the kind of short, erotic, hyperviolent urban fiction he writes.

Unfortunately for him, it’s not a market anyone seems willing to explore. Since the publication of Angry Nights by the tiny FC2 press, after the manuscript won the 1994 FC2-Illinois State University National Fiction Competition, Fondation — whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals and newspapers — has lived with a succession of mainstream publishers praising his work while turning it down for commercial reasons.

“An editor at Knopf wrote to me to tell me how ‘brilliant, exhilarating and sexy’ Common Criminals was,” he says on the phone from LA. “And the letter ended with her turning it down.” He laughs. “If it’s so brilliant, exhilarating and sexy, and they couldn’t publish it, I wonder what you have to have to get published.”

Common Criminals, which finally found a home at the small, California-based Asylum Arts Press, is that rarity — a book that actually contains the realities of life on the streets of our cities. The subtitle, L.A. Crime Stories, is technically accurate — there’s a crime committed on pretty much every page — but these stories have no connection to the genre of crime writing.

From vignettes that are only a couple of sentences long to more conventionally fleshed-out stories, this book renders the lives of thugs, drug dealers, thieves, killers and people just trying to get by. While harsh and honest, Fondation writes without judgment. The prose is terse and to the point, detailing people and circumstances as unstable and explosive as a Saturday night special. Witness the opening sentences of “Stalemate,” the best story in the book:

He had a gun and I had a gun.

My girlfriend and I were living in a run-down place on Grand Avenue near the freeway. They’d just re-opened the Grand Olympic and I got a job selling tickets to the boxing events and the rock concerts.

The guy with the gun just came in off the street. Intent on robbery, I guess. Cheap gun, I noticed.

“Freeze,” I yelled, like a cop, and turned on the lights. He had his gun pointed at me already. I was naked but I had my gun out, too.

He laughed when he saw me without clothes and I turned red.

Eileen came out from our bedroom in the back. She saw the two of us with guns.

She screamed and I slapped her — the first time ever.

“He’s got a gun,” I said.

I had a hard-on. Eileen noticed, came by my side, and grabbed it.

As the story continues, the behavior of the characters becomes ever more bizarre, and yet it also makes perfect sense. Because this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.