Lou Mathews’ new novel Shaky Town begins with a scene of a man at a bus stop:
“I was talking to one of my constituents the other day, but he didn’t know it. George was his name, I didn’t learn that until later. He didn’t know he was a constituent, he didn’t know I was the mayor, he didn’t know he was sitting in my office.”
The narrator of the passage is a character named Emiliano, and he is the self-appointed mayor of an L.A. neighborhood called Shaky Town. But — and this is the kind of thing Lou would never admit — it could just as easily be the author himself talking.
Lou Mathews is the mayor of L.A. as it should be; not the political entity you find on an official map or in The Thomas Guide but the place where people actually live, the place where spirits live. I may be biased because I count him as a mentor and friend, but I think it’s also safe to say that as a writer and educator, Lou has provided more to the city than any elected politician could ever claim. This is fitting, because only L.A. could produce a person and artist like Lou Mathews.
In what other town can a street racer and mechanic turn himself into a cult figure who publishes his first novel in his fifties and his second in his seventies? Lou grew up on the outskirts of Glendale, one of four sons to a single mother who taught Catholic school and used the public library as a babysitter. He wears a black polo shirt and tattered shorts literally every single day, and he frequents only the scummiest municipal golf courses that the greater Los Angeles region has to offer. This is all to say that Lou holds a specific and uniquely democratic place in the city’s literary landscape.
His first novel, LA Breakdown — a haunting and autobiographical tale of ’60s street racing set around drive-ins like Van de Kamp’s and Bob’s Big Boy — was critically acclaimed, appearing on the L.A. Times list of best books when it was published in 1999. It also happened to be published by a deranged British con man who absconded with the royalties and original manuscripts. The book almost immediately fell out of print and public memory.
The second novel, Shaky Town, is different. This is a book that not only reveals the lives that populate this little pocket of L.A. in the ’80s — local drunks and lonely widows and exasperated shopkeepers; girlfriends and priests and innocent, dumb high school kids — but probes them. It’s a book in which stuff happens. Fates are sealed. Amends are made. Curses are cast. Think Winesburg, Ohio set on San Fernando Road. Shaky Town was published by Tiger Van Books — a press created by one of Lou’s former students, the author and TV creator Jim Gavin, with the express purpose of righting a half a century of publishing wrongs done to Lou and fellow Angelenos, weirdos, and wandering spirits that can mainly be chalked up to the typical New York elitism.
For the most part, Lou has done his best to avoid those elites. Lou has spent decades teaching not in a fancy MFA program, but at UCLA Extension, dispensing earned wisdom and generously marking up manuscripts in contrasting colors for each read. He and his wife, the poet Alison Turner, have turned their home into the hub of the most unpretentious and well-fed writing community the world has ever seen. It’s a perpetual and ongoing miracle, the kind of thing that inspires people to fight rush hour traffic to drive from Oxnard to Beachwood Canyon on a Thursday night.
Lou’s students include acclaimed L.A. writers, award winners, New York Times Best Sellers (Dana Johnson, Mary Kuryla, J. Ryan Stradal) and a multitude of equally talented folks who just haven’t won the lottery yet. They all say the same thing: he believed in them. He made them realize that, for lack of a better word, they were writers and they ought to take the work seriously. This is the real definition of success: writing from a place of sincerity and love.
Shaky Town is a work of love. It’s a book full of people who are just trying to make the best of things. The characters are imperfect and in over their heads and grappling with forces beyond their control, ranging from capitalism to local cops to the Catholic Church. Lou writes like he teaches, humbly and from the heart. These are people he has known. These are the people he is. This is a book that looks its characters straight in the eye, that by virtue of its heartbreaking specificity becomes bigger than any one place. Even Los Angeles.