At most newspapers the first-person singular pronoun, like the nuclear football, is entrusted to one person at a time. Usually cityside columns go to native sons, like Chicago-born Mike Royko, or the congenital New Yorker Jimmy Breslin. Here in California, we're a tad more welcoming: the San Francisco Chronicle boulevardier Herb Caen hailed from Sacramento, the Los Angeles Times' gentle Jack Smith from Long Beach.
Steve Lopez of The Times comes to us all the way from the working-class Bay Area town of Pittsburg. He may have even grown up reading Herb Caen, but you'd never know it. As a satisfying new collection of columns shows, Lopez is a grouchier correspondent than Caen for a less patient city than Jack Smith's L.A.
Yet Lopez has always played the sorehead and the softie with equal ease. When he happened onto the continuing story that became "The Soloist," about his friendship with the schizophrenic skid row violinist Nathaniel Ayers, some formulaic filmmaking grafted the familiar "loner redeemed" scenario onto a story it didn't really fit. Lopez could pluck a heartstring long before Ayers came along, and he can still draw blood long after.
Maybe more than any other writer, a cityside columnist depends on his rapport with readers. As Lopez says in his introduction, "No columnist works alone." But where Smith's readership used to rely on him to settle a bet — "Jack, was Lana Turner really discovered at Schwab's?" — Lopez's readers expect him, often as not, to pick a fight.
In this collection of columns, Lopez spars with a cardinal, a governor, a police chief, a couple of billionaires and a mayor or two. Most but not all of these title bouts land in two sections called, a little perfunctorily, "The High and Mighty" and "Politics as Usual." Lopez gives good weight in both, though we do hear rather more from him than from his interviewees.
This imbalance is only fair, since any politician who won't budge off his familiar talking points deserves whatever he gets as a wiseacre's straight man. The standout Lopez column in this vein remains the one that begins, "He speaks without commas and if I were going to tell you about my first encounter with Los Angeles police-chief-in-waiting Bill Bratton, I wouldn't even know where to begin because he talks so fast that even I was out of breath and...." All pols duck and weave, but each does it in his own way. The Bratton column works especially well because Lopez doesn't just give Bratton a nickname, he makes him a character.
The piece also shines because Lopez varies his voice. A columnist needs a durable voice like an actor needs an interesting face, and Lopez has one of the sturdiest voices around: sly, wise and unpersuaded. But the same fastball can grow predictable, pitch after pitch, without an occasional change-up salted in to keep us honest. That's why Lopez's periodic departures, not just from form but from town — as when he traveled to a Mexican village all but unmanned by immigration north to Southern California — are worth every receipt they pile up. It's not as if the columnist who took Eli Broad to lunch at Los Tacos is out to pad his expense account.
The other thing every columnist needs, and that a Los Angeles columnist circa 2011 needs maybe most of all, is the ability to mix clarity with outrage. If things don't break just right in Sacramento, California may just careen over its own lovely cliffs this year and L.A. right along with it. The invaluable, angry service Lopez continues to perform is spelling out the fateful connections between the lofty characters he mocks and the exploited, defenseless ones he sticks up for.
He did it again in March with a column about students at Hamilton High fighting cuts in arts education and the humanities. Lopez didn't go out to find that story; it came to him. But he earned it with columns like the ones in this collection, so the kids knew just where to go. If Lopez can keep up the pace and maybe turn a phrase or two along the way — like the time he counseled the publicity-conscious Cardinal Roger Mahony that it's better "to sit with his flock than with his flack" — Southern California will owe him more than ever.
The career of a columnist like Lopez can have three distinct phases: first, when he still nervously re-reads his work every morning to make sure it turned out right; later, when he hits his stride and makes do with reading it onscreen the night before; and, last, when he doesn't even read it himself before filing on deadline.
It's tricky to gauge where Lopez falls on this continuum, since the new collection is arranged thematically instead of temporally. Lopez's kickers can get a little lazy, but the specter of burnout — when even the best tend to pull a few too many columns out of the mailbag — still looks to be safely down the road. One hopes Lopez may yet scrape together the time to write some book-length L.A. fiction, to join his three well-received crime novels set in Philly and Jersey.
In the meantime, Lopez should find himself a decent California publishing house. It speaks well for his sense of loyalty, of course, that "Dreams and Schemes: My Decade of Fun in the Sun" comes from the same Philadelphia press that came out with his first collection in 1995. Still, no self-respecting Los Angeles publisher would ever give such a good book such an unspeakably hideous title.
Former San Francisco Chronicle Book Critic Kipen is the proprietor of Libros Schmibros, a lending library and used bookshop in Boyle Heights, and can be reached at email@example.com. He has written the introduction to a new edition of the WPA guide to Los Angeles, out this month from UC Press.