When I think of Redondo Beach, a city in Los Angeles County, California, the first thing that comes to mind is the song of the same name from Patti Smith’s 1975 album Horses, not the town of the early twentieth century that Ashton Politanoff sketches into life in his debut novel, You’ll Like It Here. But then again, looking at the lyrics of Smith’s song, I’m not sure that the tale of a young woman who goes missing, only to wash up on the shore dead by apparent suicide wouldn’t fit neatly into one of the reports recorded in this book. A sadly timeless beachside town theme. And that is the kind haunting connection that links this work inspired by archives, newspapers, anecdotes and photographs from a century ago to our current times, giving it a rather melancholy resonance.
Politanoff who moved to Redondo Beach at the age of eight, describes in his introduction how the death of his mother in 2014 inspired a desire to know more about his hometown. He was drawn to archival materials seeking something in the past of the place he had grown up in—a past, it turns out, that far preceded his own family’s arrival. A mystical past, perhaps, because after all, we grow up with ghosts embedded in our surroundings, an ancestral link is not the only possible connection that binds one to any given place. For Politanoff, the ghosts calling out or the history speaking to him seemed to be the years between 1911 and 1918. In this period he saw, he says “a town come to life and recognized in an era strangely analogous to our own.”
You’ll Like It Here is composed of a collection of fragmentary news briefs, anecdotes, announcements, recipes and remedies drawn from documentary resources and shaped into a spare, fictionalized portrait of a growing seaside town, capturing local events—the everyday and the extraordinary—as well as the impact of happenings that originate from afar—namely war and disease. Surfacing here and there throughout the text are dim black and white archival photographs that echo the accounts unfolding.
Reading as if they were drawn from newsletters and broadsheets, presented in a narrow column one item to a page, each piece catches the flavour of the time balanced against a headline that completes the intent of the commentary, occasionally carrying all of the meaning itself, other times adding a humorous or ironic touch. As such, the care with which each one of these short fragments is created allows a larger picture to be imagined. The loose ends, unanswered questions and sly implications allow for a fuller realm of possibilities. Ephemeral historical fiction without the confines of the conventional form of the genre.
The protagonist here is the town itself and its environs as illustrated through the thoughts, experiences and practices of its inhabitants. Its ghosts. Drawing on actual news stories, catalogues and manuals of the time, Politanoff recreates his own variations. As one might expect, fatal accidents and near misses are a common occurrence:
A ladder had its footing on the Pacific Electric track near Pier No.1. A painter was mounted on the ladder, working on the new building when a streetcar rounded the corner and rapidly approached. The painter was able to jump onto the roof of the building as the ladder was demolished, collapsing into a pile of sticks.
Violent confrontations, murder, suicide and madness are also reported. Happenings, strange events and animal tales also appear. And, of course, there are the usual civic matters that arise in any community:
The truck itself is in desperate need of repair. The machine must be run with a dry radiator when it is taken out—we can’t keep it filled with water. The trailer which carries the hose, suffered a flat tire two weeks ago and yet no action has been taken by the city.
You’ll find the bizarre, the tragic and the absurd, with some of the most unusual entries coming from the medicinal folklore of the day:
Cover the wound in ground black pepper. Since the flesh is dead, you will feel no sensation. Enjoy it while you can.
Although it is billed as a novel, falling into a tradition that is somewhere between Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Kathryn Scanlon’s spare Aug 9 – Fog, a set of seasonal entries inspired by the diary of an eighty-six year-old woman uncovered at an estate sale, I found myself wondering what exactly I wanted to call You’ll Like It Here as I was reading. A fractured fictional reimagining of a place that feels like a ghost town superimposed on a city that still exists and thrives. However as the end approaches, clocking in with the end of the First World War and the Spanish Flu, the strong ties to the present carry across the century that stands between that Redondo Beach and the current one—the nineteen-teens and the twenty-twenties. As such, it is an extraordinarily original way to explore the history of one’s hometown with an honesty and authenticity often lost in more conventional histories.
You’ll Like It Here by Ashton Politanoff is published by Dalkey Archive Press.