One Long Rock and Roll

Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.

NYRB Classics, 184pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781681370088

reviewed by Adrian Nathan West

New York and Los Angeles are perhaps the only cities in the United States where substantial sections of the population use the term ‘American’ with ethnographic pretence, as though referring to strangers met on holiday or a study abroad rather than their compatriots. Both cities have long been bound closer to elsewhere than their analogues further inland: Los Angeles has taken in an illustrious list of exiles from Döblin and Brecht to the Iranian-Jewish Merage family, inventors of the microwaveable Hot Pocket, while New York’s 3 million immigrants speak some 800 languages, making it the most linguistically diverse city in the world.

But the allure of the foreign matters less, perhaps, than the lifestyles the places evoke, even if they respond more to myth than to reality: the fast-paced, fast-talking, gray, grifting decadence of New York, the glamorous, sunny hedonism of LA. Eve Babitz, who dated Jim Morrison, played chess with Duchamp in the nude and learned to eat caviar from Stravinsky’s wife Vera, both lived and helped create the illusion of LA, and after four decades, her 1974 book Slow Days, Fast Company, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, reads like an elegy for a naïve, unpredictable wildness lost in an age of cookie-cutter hipsters, big box stores and Tinder.

It describes itself as an inadvertent love story, written for a man who doesn’t like to read, and self-consciously addresses the city that foregrounds it: ‘perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full, no matter how fast the company.’ Babitz’s LA is a hot, tequila-soaked, cocaine-dusted playground where money seems endless and work is something people allude to but don’t actually do. In this ‘gigantic, sprawling studio,’ where ‘everything is off the record,’ life is reduced to sensuality and gossip, and the glitz that surrounds the author’s every day makes the commonplace – attending a Dodgers game or taking a road trip to Bakersfield – seem as exotic and improbable as a journey to the moon.

The author was well-enough known as a groupie to lead the music executive and gallerist Earl McGrath to remark: ‘In every young man’s life there is an Eve Babitz. It’s usually Eve Babitz.’ Her free attitude toward sexual pleasure is one of the book’s greatest charms, particularly for those still susceptible to certain démodé notions of courtship that seem likely to fade into obsolescence: ‘He looked like a Marlboro commercial close up. And he treated me with a chivalrous masculine know-how that I sopped up like a person who’d never heard of how chivalry was just another nefarious masculine scheme to keep women in their place.’

Slow Days, Fast Company is an aimless picaresque: as Babitz writes in her first book, Eve’s Hollywood (1974), dismissing the mystical yearnings of hippies on LSD, ‘I didn’t want the Answer. I wanted the colors.’ Behind every moment in the book is a throbbing expectancy – first because, for Babitz, life without adventure was pointless, and second, because her wit and sexiness allowed her to wait till fortune came to her. The book’s weakness lies in the creeping suspicion that all this driving, drinking, sex, drugs and scandal would lack interest, had it not happened to Babitz, or in Wichita instead of LA. And as the book goes on, one begins to wonder, is it interesting? How much allure springs from the author’s character, from her eloquence and insight, and how much from the happenstance of her beauty, her family’s status and the city where she was born?

Babitz occupies a curious point in the history of American prose in which mass culture relieved authors of a great deal of descriptive labour, and imaginative fecundity became less important than adeptness at allusion. In Slow Days, Fast Company, one man dresses like Johnny Carson, the guests at a party are ‘Nixony,’ a woman’s migraines ‘seem cruel and undeserved like those ads about starving children in the New Yorker.’ The great, grim spaces of 20th-century letters, the corners where hypocrisy hides and the grit of grime accumulates, are reduced to the best places to drink Mai Tais or have dinner on a rainy day. This marks a transfer of responsibility from writer to reader inseparable from such factors as the spread of television and commercial air travel, the triumph of market capitalism over its ideological rivals, and the shift in tabloid journalism from crime stories to celebrity gossip, which in concert gave rise to a pressure, among a certain class of people, to keep themselves constantly in the know. From the perspective of the present, this all seems idle, until one recalls the unprecedented vapidity of the present-day stars and the extent to which even serious media have cast dignity aside to attend to their every stunt and mishap.

To call Babitz’s writing frivolous is not quite a criticism; the life it describes is frivolous, and a description of it from the inside, with an insider’s lack of irony, could hardly be otherwise. The question the book raises, in moral and aesthetic terms, is the nature of the aura of fame and the glow it casts on those near to it, whether the guilty pleasures attention to it affords are innocuous or somehow corrosive. This depends in part on each reader’s particular tolerance for quips about overdoses and hysterectomies, but much more on whether one views the cultivation of seriousness as praiseworthy or pretentious.

Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation as well as translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature. His essays, fiction and criticism have appeared in McSweeney’s, 3:AM, the Times Literary Supplement and Asymptote, where he is a contributing editor.