In stories that range through history, serendipity, speculation, whimsy, and horror, Daniel Olivas chronicles the lives of characters who have loved—and lost—Los Angeles.
The central idea behind Anywhere But L.A. can be found in the title. Most of the characters in the stories share a Hispanic heritage and have a connection to Los Angeles. Instead of trapping them in a Southern California valley or desert, author Daniel Olivas lets his characters travel, flee, or expatriate—to Albuquerque, Mexico, and England. Yet L.A. looms large in its absence, and the city’s ethereal presence creates unfulfilled longing. The characters have left behind their home, a past, and a part of themselves.
Alone in a new place, many characters in the book are ghosts themselves, and it is not surprising that the people they meet are as elusive as they are, slipping in and out, more like symbols and apparitions than real people. In “Las Dos Fridas,” Tonyo takes a trip to Mexico after his divorce and spends hours in the Frida Kahlo museum. While he stares transfixed at the painting Las Dos Fridas, a woman with a strange birthmark quietly appears next to him and disappears just as silently. In “San Diego,” a young woman’s father brings his white girlfriend to dinner and a subversive drama unfolds. In “Jews of Dos Cuentos,” an exiled writer is visited by a gentleman in a fedora, who requests a translation of his dead wife’s Holocaust memoirs.
The premises of Olivas’s stories are engrossing, and the voices with which he tells them are both precise and nuanced. But at times the author seems not to trust himself, or the scene, and tends to overdramatize. The delightful “San Diego” turns soap-operatic when the father’s girlfriend acts catty and threatens the narrator. And in “Jews of Dos Cuentos,” instead of ending with the beautiful passage from the Holocaust memoir about the redemptive power of art, Olivas tacks on a moralizing passage that attempts to address evil, love, and hope.
Scattered throughout the collection are several two-page stories that read as monologues, almost as characters on a stage, speaking in their unique and colloquial voices. A nude model observes herself on canvas (“Paintings”), an alcoholic relates how he accidentally left his infant son in an overheating car (“Let Me Tell You a Story”), and a single woman waits at a restaurant for a gay colleague with whom she’s had sexual relations (“Gisellas”). Each of these is a perfect nugget. The longer stories are more ambitious, ranging through history, serendipity, speculation, whimsy and horror. “La Queenie” begins with the narrator’s Irish grandfather leaving Biloxi for California, then switches to the present, in which the narrator meets a mysterious woman at a Spanish Mass. “La Queenie” is an intriguing piece whose strangeness is undercut by excessive premonitions.
As Olivas’s displaced characters drift, their perceptions become hazy. Yet what brings them together, what gives their world clarity, is art. Art as in paintings and literature, as well as in food, drinks, and music. Dishes full of flavor, Mexican spices and smells, stand vivid in the center of the gatherings. When exiles dream of other places, those places are filled with company and art. This focus on gatherings as a place for characters to find the community they’ve lost, is one of Olivas’s most powerful themes.
The stories in Anywhere But L.A. are unique and accessible, revealing of richly nuanced worlds. At the same time, the characters are effectively universal, their trysts with loneliness and the confessional quality of their narratives instantly recognizable. Short story collections have to offer enough variety that the whole book warrants reading, and enough cohesion to be called a collection. Anywhere But L.A. accomplishes this dual goal admirably and remarkably.