The writing life isn't exclusive to the introvert, loner or recluse. Yet such authorial stereotypes persist: Emily Dickinson tucked away in her Amherst homestead; J.D. Salinger ensconced in pastoral New Hampshire; Thomas Pynchon moving like a ghost among his fellow Manhattanites. Reticence, it seems, only heightens mystique. Even writers who don't entirely remove themselves from the public eye but maintain a cool distance on the page or in person tend to be perceived as extra "writerly." See: Joan Didion's reportorial detachment or Don DeLillo's preference for doing interviews via fax.
What to make, then, of a carefree, fun-seeking scribe like Eve Babitz, whose tell-all tales of the LA party scene of the 1960s and '70s are unabashedly about enjoying attention rather than eschewing it? A writer who has been characterized, often dismissively, as Didion's antipode? Now that some of Babitz's books have been reprinted — including "L.A. Woman," "Eve's Hollywood" and, most recently, the vibrant 1977 essay collection "Slow Days, Fast Company" — journalists and critics have wrestled with this question.
Typically, they introduce Babitz with adjectives like "voluptuous," "scandalous" and "seductive," and phrases like "former Wild Child" and "professional ingenue" (to quote various reviews). Among the oft-cited facts: she attended Hollywood High; her godfather was Igor Stravinsky; she played chess with Marcel Duchamp in a now-famous portrait in which the artist wears a dark suit and 20-year-old Eve poses nude. The Smithsonian Archives of American Art calls it "among the key documentary images of American modern art." And by the way, reviewers will note with sarcasm (others with a questionable lack thereof), this "serial celebrity muse," whose exes include Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin and Ed Ruscha, can actually write!
In the introduction to "Slow Days, Fast Company," Matthew Specktor calls out "an irritating tendency, one as sexist as it is parochial, to imagine Babitz's work as an accidental, perhaps even unimportant byproduct of her glamorous biography." Or, we'd add, as transpiring in spite of her Hollywood lifestyle, as if doing coke in a cotton kaftan at the Chateau Marmont — recounted here in the story "The Garden of Allah" — somehow undermines her literary talents. (While, annoyingly, Pynchon's need for privacy only amplifies his.) Furthermore, Specktor notes, "The twentieth century is littered with fabled male geniuses who enjoyed their opium, their reefer, their booze and sex and cocaine. But very seldom are these particular titans introduced drugs and conquests first."
A better way to contextualize Eve Babitz? By referring to her as one of the best writers about Los Angeles in American literature. Because she is. Consider how she describes her lifelong home with both canny insight and breezy familiarity: "Los Angeles isn't a city. It's a gigantic, sprawling, ongoing studio. … Work and love — the two best things — flourish in studios." And: "It's very easy to stand L.A., which is why it's almost inevitable that all sorts of ideas get entertained, to say nothing of lovers." Whereas Didion regards the Santa Ana winds as portentous, Babitz celebrates their ability to shake things up: "Just think, if we didn't have the Santa Anas, how straight we all would be."
Also, she's hilarious. "He would not resist a pun," Babitz says of a male friend whose affections she does not reciprocate. "And any man who will not resist a pun will never lie up-pun me."
From Emerald Bay to Bakersfield to the ever-changing Sunset Strip, "Slow Days, Fast Company" is a tour by a chatty, stylish, incredibly shrewd docent through a legendary place in a legendary time. "Early in life I discovered that the way to approach anything was to be introduced by the right person," she says of a trip with a beau to Dodger Stadium, which finds her suddenly invested in baseball. The same is true of 1970s Southern California as evocatively explained by Eve Babitz. Call her the writing life of the party.
Laura Pearson is a freelancer.
Slow Days, Fast Company
By Eve Babitz, NYRB Classics, 184 pages, $15.95