Mike Davis​ was the kind of character who left you with strong, comic memories. One of mine is of midnight on the Boulder Dam, out in the desert south of Las Vegas. (‘Boulder, not Hoover,’ I hear him growling.) The geographer Richard Walker and I had been teaching a seminar at Berkeley on ‘consumer society’ and we were ending term with a field trip to Vegas, and wanted Davis to meet us there. He was doubtful, for reasons easily guessed; he only began to soften when he heard that part of our time in the city would be spent with the men and women who had helped unionise the workforce of its monster hotels. It had been a lonely triumph for trade unionism in the previous decade. ‘Well, OK. Be on top of the dam, near one of the central towers, on Friday before midnight.’

We were there; a dozen of us almost alone in the desert silence, looking down over the face of the dam to the turbine halls seven hundred feet below. (The engineers in 1933 had to dream up new ways of cooling the mixture inside the superheated pyramid, running a network of water pipes right through it. The story goes that even now, close to a century later, the concrete at the core hasn’t set.) Davis left his entrance to the very last minute; we couldn’t hear a car arriving. Then he strode out of the darkness and jumped up on the Art Deco battlements. ‘You are standing,’ he began, ‘on the city limits of Los Angeles.’

A tremendous Mike Davis lecture followed, rumbling out over the dry Colorado River: on the politics of water and the war between the states, the ecology of the desert, the fragility of the city two hundred miles south-west, the great river and its agonies, infrastructure and capital, the New Deal and class struggle. Consumer society was put in its place.

Marxism, whatever else it may be, is not a view of life. It seems to do best when it is grafted, often improbably, onto a deeper metaphysics – Messianic half-hopes, Hegelian negativity, existentialism, even a dazzled vestigial faith in poetry or music. What the graft was in Davis’s case will be clear from a sentence near the beginning of Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory (the closest he ever came, as he acknowledged, to a straight piece of Marxology). Marx, he says there, ‘never wrote a single word about cities, and his passionate interests in ethnography, geology and mathematics were never matched by a comparable concern with geography’. But cities, for Davis, were life itself. As he saw it, cities are the human. Marx’s proposals may be essential to understanding them, but what they truly are – what kinds of place and non-place, what forms of co-existence and avoidance, obeying what symbolic imperatives, opening or closing on what visions of the future – is the enigma Davis returned to through the decades. The wonderful muckraking of City of Quartz and the crushing arithmetic of Planet of Slums remain our best maps – our best no-nonsense phenomenologies – of progress and its price.

Progress, for a Marxist like Davis, remained an undeniable and obscene fact. It was always the best of times, the worst of times. (The empire of Genghis Khan no doubt improved its subjects’ overall life chances. Sex slaves at court had never had it so good.) Davis was born in Fontana, out in the Inland Empire fifty miles east of LA, in 1946. The Hell’s Angels were founded in the city soon afterwards. By the 1970s, Fontana was ‘capital of the smog belt’, with eighty days a year of Stage One eye-stinging murk. In City of Quartz, he quoted Joan Didion, passing through on her way to a murder trial:

The lemon groves are sunken, down a three or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval.

Then sixty pages follow in which the dialectics of catastrophe are teased out. What Fontana had been, and was meant to be. What specific acts of ‘creative destruction’ had made it the wasteland to which Davis now returned. What shards of utopia survive in the filth. How its inhabitants live the reality, stoical and maddened.

By the time the reader arrives at Davis’s last tableau – the book’s finale – it seems to me impossible to pin down his tone. Is he riffing again on Didion or speaking back to her Heart of Darkness gloom, replying with a burst of laughter, a nod to Aragon and Benjamin, a shake of the head at human resilience:

Even crime in Fontana has a random surreality about it. There is, for instance, the maniac who murdered hundreds of eucalyptus trees, or Bobby Gene Stile (‘Doctor Feldon’), the king of obscene phone calls, who has confessed to fifty thousand dirty phone conversations over the last twenty-three years … Closer to Sierra [the town’s old main street] there is a gathering sense of a mise en scène by a downhome Fellini. On one corner a hardluck cowboy is trying to sell his well-worn Stetson hat to the patriarch of a family of road gypsies. They have just left the Saturday swap meet at the Belair Drive-In. Inside, a lobster-faced desert ‘flea’ from Quartzite is haggling with a trio of super-bag-ladies from the San Fernando Valley over the value of some ‘depression’ glass saucers and an antique commode. Some local kids with Guns N’ Roses gang-banging T-shirts are listening to another grizzled desert type – this one looking like Death Valley Scotty – describe his recent encounter with aliens. A Jehovah’s Witness in a maroon blazer kibbitzes uncomprehendingly.

Down the road is a wrecker’s yard, full of bits of Ferris wheel and stone elephants saved from the Southland’s extinct theme parks.

There was a side of Mike Davis, you will gather, that looked at his native landscape through Fellini’s eyes. You expect any minute to see Giulietta Massina take the Witness behind the creosote bush. But the picaresque, in Davis, was constantly strong-armed by the student of The Eighteenth Brumaire – that’s what makes City of Quartz unique. (The Marxism of Accattone may be the nearest equivalent.) Inevitably this mixture meant, in the case of our friendship, that Davis regularly raised an eyebrow at my enthusiasm for LA and its hinterland. I was too much the stock Englishman, in love with sunshine, clutching my copy of Reyner Banham and mouthing ‘Down these mean streets … ’ I said to him once that we’d walk together along Whitehall in February and maybe he’d understand what I was escaping from, the waves of hatred and helplessness. Another time I remember him offering to take me and my wife and two friends for a night-time drive, ‘to see the real Los Angeles’. I’ve lost track of the date, but it must have been deep in the era of crack cocaine – at the time South Central really was a wasteland. A few weeks before, I had given a lecture at the University of Southern California and had been taken for a bite afterwards in some kind of marquee. Partway through the meal, the clatter of helicopter blades started up a few blocks south, and then steady gunfire. ‘USC – University of South Central,’ someone said. ‘University of Scared Caucasians.’

Davis’s night ride had the same flavour. We set off east from Broadway round dusk (this was before yuppies had turned the Chicano market into a food hall) and were immediately in the Spanish-speaking downtown. The streets were crowded for the first half-hour, then empty in a matter of minutes. Davis turned the car down a narrow arroyo, killed the lights, crawled forwards under a Psycho-Victorian perched on the hill to our right. ‘Drug king’s headquarters. They’ve got four or five guns trained on us.’ We picked up speed, headed south past the pork factories, zigzagged through terrain vague. It was dark by now. The car swerved off a street of gingerbreads into an alley, accelerated with a shudder, and dived into a hole in the ground. We were in some sort of pipe or sewer, our headlights rimming the place with fire, showing nothing ahead. Davis’s foot was firmly on the pedal. Conversation in the car had ceased. Then suddenly the car slammed to a halt. ‘Goddamn it! Those rains last week …’ Up ahead, blocking the tunnel, inches away from the fender, was a pile of indecipherable trash – torn branches, boxes, mud, tyre treads, yard debris, a tail pipe. We backed up.

This was one of Davis’s set pieces – taking the greenhorns down an overflow pipe for the LA River, and ending, if things went smoothly, with the car flying out of the pipe clean through the air, crashing down on the concrete sides of a vast dry gulch. Our own anti-Nature, Angelenos call it. Our Martian canal.

We were meant to be scared and bewildered (and we were), but in the end stopped in our tracks – smiling, disbelieving – at one more variant on California sublime. And the set piece was only a stage on our journey. Off we went, back south for twenty minutes down Central Avenue, past the hulks of hotels where once Ella and Duke had played to packed houses. We pulled up in front of the one blues club still functioning, settled into a booth – Davis was a regular, people knew him well – relaxed, listened to music, talked.

I loved the night ride, stunts and all. The car was Davis’s native element. I remember another long drive up north, to see the Arts and Crafts murals in Sacramento – the grasslands, the mountains, the wild Pacific – and being treated for an hour to the story of Davis’s time as a young man in London, on the board of the New Left Review. It was definitely a funny story, but told with a Mark Twain, Yankee at the Court of King Arthur generosity. And of course I understood his laughter at my love of the Southland. I had the feeling that somewhere in the back of his mind, listening to me, was the memory of a scene in a movie called Model Shop, by Jacques Demy. The key scene is pretty much silent – an architect drifter called George getting out of his car, looking down on the city from the Hollywood Hills, the great ribbon of Crenshaw stretching south, Long Beach gone in the smog. Then later, George to a friend:

I was driving down Sunset, and I turned on one of those roads that lead up into the hills, and stopped at this place that overlooks the city. It was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was moved by the geometry of the place, its conception, its baroque harmony … To think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry.

No doubt my monologues were just as bad.

But I stand by them; and Davis, of all people, knew very well what Demy was trying to enunciate. I imagine him sitting in the cinema in 1969, watching Model Shop’s opening sequence. It’s pure City of Quartz. The title leaps up in 1960s red, the fateful date below, and behind it the city edge: straight road with high poles through half-abandoned sand territory, grey rolling in from the ocean, a nodding oil pump, a shipwrecked beach palace off to the left, a car in need of a respray. Who could resist the poetry? De là, dans ces lieux peu attrayants, et marqués à jamais par le passant de l’épithète triste. I guess the two of us would have shifted a bit embarrassedly in our seats when, minutes later, George’s monologue made the poetry explicit, but neither of us would have found it in our hearts to dissent.

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