created by john shannon



Here I offer the inside story on the dedications and epigraphs for each of the Jack Liffey books.

1. The Concrete River

For Sarah.


Sarah Cooper, director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, an exemplar of that sort of gracious and selfless kindness that the Midwest continually regenerates, who has dedicated herself to preserving Southern California's social history at this priceless library in the heart of south central L.A. Incidentally, she was the owner of Jack's old AMC Concord.

"The flat plains are indeed the heartlands of the city's Id"

--Reyner Banham.

From the book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, a now classic reading of L.A. social history as seen through various "ecologies": The Plains of the Id are where the poor and powerless live, where things are done to people.

Incidentally, I misspelled his name as Rainer in the John Brown Books edition, out of a false resonance. I roomed and worked for a year in England with the Spiegel journalist Rainer Weber.

2. The Cracked Earth


For Pam

Pam Pescara, endlessly cheerful and upbeat, resilient and funny, one of my oldest friends and supporters who got me through some terrible times when no one wanted to buy my books.

"Catastrophes adapt themselves to their relevant cultural order. Los Angeles represents a horizontal break, a breaking open of spaces in an intellectual sense. There never was a foundation or a profundity, but only a cracked surface."

--Jean Baudrillard

Whatever one thinks of the French post-structuralists, their occasionally overwrought rhetoric and strained formulations, they make one think and consider the world and its relations in new ways. And this couldn't be more appropriate to the theme of the book at several levels.

3. The Poison Sky


For Bob Coe.

One of the silent partners in John Brown Books, from his faraway redoubt in Salem, Oregon. A generous and voracious and enlightened reader and treasured friend. I can never get enough bookish conversation with him.

Thanks to Robert Stone for the crows on page 189, and to David MacDougall for the lard.


The wonderfully goofy headline about the skydiver being pecked to death by starving crows is stolen straight out of Robert Stone's great The Dog Soldiers, one of the few thefts I acknowledge.

David MacDougall is probably the pre-eminent ethnographic filmmaker in the world (they now call themselves visual anthropologists) and a close friend since film school though he usually runs in far richer company. As he says, We keep each other honest. For years, we have been trading oddities of the language that we find in newspapers and overseas signs and this one about the naked man throwing lard is real, from an Indian newspaper.

“He would not satirize them as Hogarth or Daumier might, nor would he pity them. He would paint their fury with respect, appreciating its awful, anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.”

--Nathanael West

Religion and its unquenchable fury will eat us all yet, and West knew it down to the bone.

4. The Orange Curtain


For Ken Meier

My political mentor for almost 30 years, though he tried to abandon me almost as soon as we met by moving to rural Arizona to teach in a community college, a calling which he fiercely believes in. A working class lad himself, who could have become a first-rate professor of the history of ideas at any Ivy university, he has dedicated himself instead to making our community colleges fulfill their forgotten promise to the children of the working class. He is now vice-president at Bakersfield College.

Thanks to Spencer Olin, Martin Schiesl and Vu Pham for sharing their expertise about Orange County with me. Any mistakes or exaggerations are my own.

Spencer and Marty are L.A. social historians, from UC-Irvine and Cal State-L.A. respectively, who both helped me with research for this book. Spencer Olin's contributions in Postsuburban California in particular have been priceless in defining the layerings of class struggle in Orange County and the new social formation that this new plum-pudding pseudo-city represents. Vu Pham was the high school friend of the son of one of my best friends, who was gracious enough to talk to me about growing up Vietnamese-American.

“Vulnerability may have its own private causes, but it often reveals concisely what is wounding and damaging on a much larger scale.”

--John Berger

This British Trotskyist art critic, who has lived for ages now on an isolated farm in Switzerland, is one of my favorite writers, endlessly challenging in the ways he makes us rethink our "common sense." This is from his A Fortunate Man, a stunning book that is ostensibly about the life of a country doctor in England but manages to dissect all the failings of capitalism. Do not pick this book up if you do not want your life shaken to the core.

5. Streets on Fire


For the members of the Suicide Club


The reviewer, former journalist, raconteur and mystery writer Dick Adler and I founded this occasional brunch club several years ago. The name is based on a slim Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Other members come and go, largely mystery writers with a past in journalism. I grant them their anonymity.

"All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes. Every time I stepped outside I saw a challenge I had to accept or ignore. I had to make one decision a thousand times: Is it now? Is now the time?"

--Chester Himes

This is from If He Hollers Let him Go, for my money the most powerful novel of African-American outrage ever written, with the added advantage of also being about my town, Southcentral L.A. and Long Beach. It was a tragedy that Himes' sort of rage frightened New York publishers so much at the time that he could do no more like this. He was forced to write his rather strange Harlem mysteries, enjoyable in their own way but nothing like this, and then to flee to France.

6. City of Strangers


For Patrick Millikin


Noir aficionado of the Poisoned Pen bookstore, avid reader, guitarist, friend, and supporter of my books.

"If you crammed a ship full of human bodies till it burst, the loneliness inside it would be so great that they would turn to ice."


This is from his play In the Jungle of Cities. It speaks for itself, one of Brecht's many commentaries on the increasing alienation of industrial capitalism.

7. Terminal Island


For my father, Herb, a Depression child, combat cameraman in the last just war, journalist, a man of great integrity, and nothing like anyone in the book.


When you've read the book, you'll know why this was necessary. Jack is not John, Herb is not Declan.

"Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images . . . whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult to come by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under inadequate or lying language, this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable."


--Adrienne Rich, from On Lies, Secrets and Silence, "It is the Lesbian in Us…" One of our greatest angry poets.



8. Dangerous Games


For Diane Stewart.

Diane began as, and remains, a fan of Jack Liffey but we became good friends as well, a good lunch companion for a sometimes lonely writer.


"Not to be aware of the natural light of California, nor even of a mountain fire that has been driven ten miles out to sea by the hot wind, and is enveloping the offshore oil platforms in its smoke, to see nothing of all this and obstinately to carry on running by a sort of lymphatic flagellation till sacrificial exhaustion is reached, that is truly a sign from the beyond."

--Jean Baudrillard, from America. Sometimes even the rhetorical excesses of the French philosophers can goad us into looking at things anew. Though I'm still not sure what "lymphatic flagellation" is, other than an excess of effort.

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

--W.B. Yeats, from the incomparable "The Second Coming." Has any other poem ever yeilded up more book titles by fine authors--Achebe, Didion? Somebody should make it a contest.



9. The Dark Streets

For David MacDougall.

One of the world's premiere visual anthropologists--as ethnographic filmmakers now call themselves. David and I meet for a week or so every year if we can, as he is returning the long way 'round to his new home in Australia from some far-flung filmmaking adventure---India, Sardinia, Africa--for a mini-excusion of our own into the odd recesses of America and Mexico. One of the smartest and gentlest men I've ever met. Read his Transcultural Cinema for a long thoughtful look at how filmmaker and subject ineract.


"In the middle of the journey of our lives, I found myself upon a dark path."

--Dante, setting off on his journey into the Divine Comedy: The Inferno, when he was only 35. Though I suppose that is half the Biblically alotted span.



10. The Devils of Bakersfield

For Michele Slung.

Michele has been my editor since The Orange Curtain, through two publishers, Carroll & Graf (now defunct) and Pegasus Books. And she has goaded me regularly to make the books better, the dialogue better, and to eliminate the more elaborate of the oddities and asides that do not contribute to Jack Liffey's journey.


The Songs about Bakersfield.

Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are understandable--they created the rock-tinged, less Nashville-phoney "Bakersfield Sound." But I was surprised to find songs by Mick Jagger, Martina MacBride and John Hiatt celebrating and ruing the town.


11. On the Nickel

For the novelist and critic Michael Harris: dependable friend, ambitious writer, big soul.  


Years ago Harris was a staff book reviewer for the L.A.Times, and, almost alone among reviewers, he gave himself the remarkable mission of searching out and writing up little-known but worthy books.  After he discovered my John Brown Books edition of Taking of the Waters and gave it a very thoughtful review in 1994, we became good friends.  He was one of the first victims of the cutbacks that are sending the L.A. Times and most other newspapers into their sad death spiral, but has gone on to write his own powerful and under-appreciated novels, especially The Chieu Hoi Saloon (due out this fall from PM press) , which I admire greatly.


And if the city falls, but a single man escapes
He will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
He wll be the City
--Zbigniew Herbert

The poem is called "Report from a Besieged City" and it was originally published in the collection of the same name in 1983.  Herbert, who died in 1998, was in the Opposition to Nazi rule during World War II, and later opposed Communist rule.  He has been compared often to Eliot and Auden and is probably the greatest Polish poet of the last century. 


On thinking about Hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London.I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles

Firt published in 1964, well after he had left the U.S. for East Germany following a notorious apearance before the Un-American Activities Committee, this is not one of Brecht's more profound poems, but amusing.





Copyright © John Shannon 2015. All rights reserved.