Q&A with Lou Mathews: ‘Shaky Town’ and the Way It Was

Oscar Villalon

One of the best books of fiction to have come out in recent memory is award-winning author Lou Mathew’s novel in stories, Shaky Town (246 pages; Tiger Van Books). Published nearly a year ago, it is one of those rare works that carries an assuring integrity, showing evidence of a writer who understands the bafflement that is the human condition and has the capacity to articulate inchoate sadness and hurt and anger. In Mathews’ case, it is the thoughts and travails of working-class Los Angeles that interest him. Many of his characters are lower middle-class Mexican Americans, a community to whom Mathews, who is white, has familial ties and grew up among. He writes of their complicated and varied lives with what could be called a great warmth if not outright love. But the same is true of his treatment of his white characters, the delinquent high school football player or the priest lost to himself and removed from grace. (Mathews’ compassion may remind us of Hubert Selby’s tenderness toward his damaged and marginalized protagonists.)

The stories in Shaky Town produce a special force for me. They echo similar tales of blue-collar people and tragic events as told to me by my late mother. Her stories were about growing up in the Sixties in La Puente, a tiny city in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley. (In the 2020 census, La Puente registered just a little over 38,000 residents, of whom about 31,000 identified as Latino.) As with my mother’s stories, Mathews’ fiction evokes that sense that the world exists only in the small area encompassing where you went to high school, where you attended Mass, and where you drove to work. And as with Mathew’s stories in Shaky Town, that this world is distinctly brown but with a sprinkling of white people within it.

Mathews, who is also the author of the novel L.A. Breakdown, which was a Los Angeles Times Best Book, has taught at UCLA Extension’s creative writing program since 1989, and has been published in ZYZZYVA, New England Review, and in the Pushcart Prize anthology, among other anthologies. This interview was conducted over email.

ZYZZYVA: Can you tell me about the neighborhood you grew up in? Who were your friends? Who made up your family?

Lou Mathews: Our home was in south Glendale, so far south that the only thing that stood between us and Los Angeles was Forest Lawn cemetery and San Fernando Road, but I grew up in more than one place. The other part was Toonerville, the next-door neighborhood where most of my friends lived. Nobody used the term barrio then, just Toonerville, but it was a Mexican-American neighborhood. (That’s how long ago this was—the 1950s and early ‘60s, when “Mexican American” was the preferred terminology. “Chicano” came later, and was resisted by many of my friend’s parents, just as they’d resisted Pocho and Pachuco / Pachuca back in the day). I went to Catholic schools and most of my friends were Mexican American, that’s who I ran with. It’s hard to understand now, but the divisions were economic; it wasn’t about culture or color. My widowed mother was raising five sons on a Catholic schoolteacher’s salary. Our neighbors and classmates were mostly poor. Mostly troublemakers, like me.

Z: Demographically, L.A. is a Mexican city, and people know that intellectually. But what does it mean to your understanding of yourself as Anglo to inhabit a city defined as such?

LM: Los Angeles has always been a Mexican city, and I understood that better than most. I was raised with that knowledge. My family arrived in the 1870’s. My great grandfather, Jacob “Joachim” Miller, was a successful ’49er who became a gentleman farmer in Hollywood and ran the Pioneer Marble works in downtown L.A. He’s considered the father of the California Avocado industry.* One of his customers at the Marble Works was Pio Pico, Mexico’s last governor of California. That was typical in my great grandfather’s times, many of his friends and customers were land-grant families. That continued, down to my generation. Most of my family’s padrinos and padrinas—godparents—were Villaseñors, Carriedos, Sepulvedas and the like.

Where I grew up and when I grew up, we were no longer mingling as much with land-grant families, although a lot of them had fallen on hard times as well. I was still living in a Mexican-American community, and the parents of my friends and classmates were seamstresses, bakers, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, carpenters, mechanics, and truck drivers. As an adult that didn’t change. I worked as a mechanic until I was nearly 40, and if you work with your hands, you work with Latinos. By now they weren’t just from Mexico. I learned about El Salvador and Guatemala from some of those guys. Today, Los Angeles is almost exactly like Los Angeles in the early 19th century; you can’t work construction if you don’t speak, or at least understand Spanish.

It’s funny you use the term Anglo. That’s a term from my generation, and maybe your mom’s. I used to say, when discussing the story “Crazy Life” and where it came from, that “I didn’t date an Anglo girl until I was out of high school.” It’s a great archaic term. I never thought of myself as Anglo, although I qualified. It never came up with the guys I ran with. Sometimes I’d get called huero.** I had blond hair, but it was slicked into a pompadour with the same Tres Florespomade everyone used. I wore khakis with knife-edge creases, unrolled cuffs, French Shriner shoes spit-shined to a gloss—but only on the toes—and Sir Guy shirts with pearlescent buttons, slit pockets and rolled collars that I wouldn’t trust my mother to iron. She wouldn’t have ironed them anyway since it took a half-hour to do it just right.

Z: What you’re describing to me is the quintessence of a specific type of working-class dress. I distinctly remember being five and six in La Puente in the early ‘70s and seeing guys rolling down the street like that. You couldn’t help but gawk at how sharp they looked. Taking that further, what does it mean for a working-class writer to write about a working-class world?

LM: Writing about L.A.’s working class doesn’t happen much. Or at least the results aren’t published much. Literature, or at least the publishing side of Literature, is increasingly the province of the upper crusts.

The number of writers who support themselves, solely by writing novels and short stories is miniscule. Nearly every successful literary writer teaches or does guest semesters in MFA programs. It becomes self-selecting. Who can afford a college degree and then a post graduate degree? In the last thirty years when you open Best American Short Stories, The O’Henry Awards and even the Pushcart Prize, the number of stories set in or around academe is close to a preponderance. And in the bios of award winners, nearly every writer will list their MFA program or where they teach. When you reach the level of the gatekeepers, the people who decide who to represent at their agency or what to publish you’ll almost never run into anyone who had to do any kind of manual labor. There is no intrinsic interest. It’s a world they don’t want to read about, or really, even know about. And the assumption is that there is no audience for books about working class subjects: those people don’t read, or if they do, they don’t buy books.

The other economic aspect is this: if you truly are a working-class kid who wants to write, where or when will you find the time? When I started out, I had to work my way through college. I usually had two to three jobs besides my class load. I was working at a gas station as a mechanic, I was working on cars at my house, I was doing journalism when I could. In those days, you could make enough money working part time jobs to pay rent and groceries and keep your kid in clothes. My wife didn’t work. It took longer to finish school. I didn’t graduate until 1973. I was 26 years old. But we had the luxury of time and a state university system that believed education was a basic right. We had no tuition. The world cut us some slack. That slack isn’t there anymore. If I were starting out today, I wouldn’t be married, I wouldn’t have a kid, I would probably be living in my car. That’s what I would have to do if I wanted to even think about becoming a writer. And I’d probably be working full time with a part-time job on the side.

Z: One of the aspects of your book that I find so striking is how out-of-time it seems. The   stories are set much later than one would think. To me, they read as the stories my late mother told me of growing up in La Puente in the early Sixties, and as my mother explained it to me, what we think of as the Sixties, of the counterculture, never really took hold in her part of the San Gabriel Valley. Your stories have characters that have seemed to have missed that bus, too, and its accompanying new ways of thinking about and understanding life. Would you agree?

LM: That’s a really perceptive reading, Oscar. Many of these stories seem set in the Sixties, because I was set in the Sixties. Nearly all the events that I fictionalized from my high school years, particularly “Con Safos Rifa” and “Huevos,” definitely took place in the Sixties—I graduated from Pater Noster (locally tagged as “Paddy Nasty”) in 1964. Originally, Shaky Town was to cover 50 years in the life of a neighborhood. But once I started to rewrite, some stories got cut and the title novella took precedence. The events in the novella took place mainly in the 1980s. Priests had been abusing altar boys for decades before that, but the ‘80s was when it surfaced and when the Church had to address (as vaguely as possible) the issue. Once I decided to concentrate on that decade it made sense to limit the scope. The later stories, particularly “A Curse on Chavez Ravine” and “Last Dance,” extend into the ’90s and “Ride the Black Horse” actually takes place in an undetermined future.  But yeah, the mood, like the writer, was formed in the 1960s.

As with your mother’s experience, the Cultural Revolution bypassed Shaky Town, the same way it did La Puente. That was for college kids, which made no sense, because we were the boys who got to fight that war. The names of two of my classmates, out of a graduating class of 99, are chiseled into the black wall, at least three others disappeared, and two came back from Vietnam pretty much wrecked for life.  The other thing, when you have to work full time, you can’t really afford to experiment with life-altering drugs. Hard to expand your consciousness when you need to remember to set the alarm clock for five. If you have kids to support you can’t afford the risk.

Z: Could you talk about the casualness of violence? Reading “Shaky Town” was yet another reminder of how it’s a miracle one avoids grievous harm—physical and mental—growing up in lower-middle-class America. I think of my own adolescence of where just walking down to 7-Eleven with buddies could easily lead to vicious fist fights with strangers on the sidewalk. Dismayingly, at the time that all seemed like “normal” and thus unremarkable turns of events.

LM: I know that some of my more sheltered readers may think I was exaggerating or sensationalizing the violence, but that’s really the way it was. Something shouted from a passing car could get you killed. Usually it was territorial, which was beyond stupid, because the boys who were defending their turf, usually didn’t own a square inch of it.

It was bad in the ‘60s, it was much worse by the ’80s because the weaponry was different. In the ’60s the weaponry of choice was mostly fists, car aerials, bats, chains, all used with varying skill. At worst you would see knives, straight razors, zip guns, or grandaddy’s pistol or shotgun, but that was rare. I boxed until I was sixteen, which helped, but that wouldn’t have helped by the ’80s, when Glocks, AK 47’s and sawed off shotguns were every place.  There’s no question that if I pulled the shit I got away with in high school, in the ’80s, I would have been dead.

The violence could also be cyclical. Toonerville, when I was a kid, was relatively calm. It was an isolated community, with the L.A. River on one side, San Fernando Road on the other, and buffer zones north and south. There was some friction with Clover, Frogtown, and Avenues, but no wars.  By the ’90’s it was one of the most dangerous places in L.A. One white boy psychopath who’d grown up there, nicknamed Guero, militarized the place. He actually had them doing physical training. People were killed for a sideways glance. Guero once killed a fourteen-year-old, a light-skinned kid, because his friends started calling him Guero.

Z: How did you decide which stories to relate in the first-person and which in the third?

LM: Wallace Stegner used to say that the choice of point-of-view is the most important choice we make in writing. I agree with that. Choosing point-of-view is a lot like choosing the camera angle in film. Everything is determined by how you view what happens, and multiple cameras don’t work in fiction. For me, it’s mostly intuitive, what feels right. When you choose the wrong point-of-view, eventually, you’ll know it. You have to be comfortable in your own skin. But it does have to be a choice, a decision. It can’t be automatic. Right now, first person, present tense is almost the default choice in much of the fiction I see from students. The internal monologue. If that’s made as a choice, fine, but it has to be a choice. And you need to understand the limitations of that choice. In a book length manuscript, you have to vary that choice. It’s a meal, not a succession of appetizers or desserts.

Z: Reading your first-person stories as told by Mexican American characters, my sense was that here was a writer trying to resurrect voices from the past, voices that meant something personal to him. Would that be the case?

LM: Absolutely the case. The essential voice is that of my great-uncle, Jesús Renteria. Jesús was a bracero (a legal migrant worker), from a tiny town in Zacatecas, Rancho San Bernardo. He came north, to Fillmore, California, to pick oranges, where he met my Great Aunt Dorothy Peyton, who was the Red Cross nurse at the bracero camp. They fell in love and got married.

As a young man, Jesús was something of a rascal. He had soulful brown eyes, played an eloquent guitar, and was very funny, especially when he was drinking. As a kid he was my hero. At family gatherings I was the kid who snuck him his extra beers and hid the empties. He had a very funny way of looking at the world. The voice of the self-appointed mayor of Shaky Town, Emiliano Gomez, is loosely based on my Uncle Jesús. I say loosely based because Emiliano is much more fluent in English than Jesús was; it’s the attitude that they share. The rest of the voice comes from a multitude of fathers, uncles, and older brothers of my childhood friends. There is a kind of humor and wisdom that I found amongst these men that I didn’t find anyplace else. It’s the same humor, and wisdom, that you find in dichos, Mexican folk sayings. In “Last Dance”, Emiliano is cited with his own favorite dicho, which I first learned from Jesús. “El diablo no es sabio porque él es el diablo. El diablo es sabio porque es viejo.” The Devil isn’t wise because he is the Devil. The Devil is wise because he’s old.

My own favorite dicho, and the favorites dicho of anyone who works with their hands, I learned from the father of one of my friends, Carlos Martinez. His dad, Pedro, worked as a carpenter at the studios, making furniture to be broken in filmed fights. Confronted by an impossible situation, as any mechanic, electrician, carpenter or plumber will regularly be, Pedro always pulled out the same dicho: “A Dios rogando y con el mazo dando.” Loosely translated, it means : Beg to God and hit it with a hammer. I said that a lot while working on rusted out Chevys and engines run without oil.  It helped.

Pedro also furnished me with another great line I get to use from time to time. I was at their house one time, in the middle of a rainstorm. There was a big flash of lightning and Pedro said, “In Michoacan when the lightning flashes, the rich think that God is taking their photo.”

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