“The gates to my past aren’t rusty, creaking, laced with fog. They’re the unceremonious whoosh that the sound of the rear door of a bus made as down I stepped, impatient to drown in the hot, open days of my 14th summer.”
So writes Eve Babitz in Eve’s Hollywood, her confessional novel published in 1972 and recently reissued by New York Review Books Classics. Babitz invites readers in with a “whoosh,” in her restless, measured style, barely pausing for air as she describes her life in Southern California in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, from her adolescence in Hollywood High (where she fell in the “second circle” of popularity) to her adventures as a young adult in L.A, New York, and abroad.
Eve’s Hollywood offers a series of snapshots from her life. And what a life it is. A talented writer, Babitz is also known as the nude knock-out playing chess with Marcel Duchamp in an iconic 1963 photo by Julian Wasser, and for her bohemian lifestyle and her relationships with the likes of Jim Morrison and Steve Martin. Her eight-page dedication, which itself could be a study in a creative writing workshop, nods to Annie Leibovitz (who photographed Babitz for the stunning cover, with Babitz dressed simply in a black bra and a boa), the Beverly Hills Hotel, Andy Warhol, the Didion-Dunnes (“for having to be who I’m not”), and to Rainier Ale (which receives its own story later in the collection).
Babitz is like an elusive acquaintance who seems to have always left the room by the time you arrive, leaving you to chase after her. Her voice is charming, seductive and hard to pin down. I fell a bit in love with her. (I’m certainly not the first.) But trying to say exactly why feels like trying to explain an inside joke, or describing something beautiful and intense you experienced alone. I’d prefer to thrust the book in your lap so you can be in on it, too.
Babitz’s stories can depict the ordinary (though nothing feels ordinary in her hands), from a description of a Xerox machine and the banalities of work, or the more unusual, like a funny meditation on the suicide of her beloved cat. She recognizes the value of beauty, watching women come into it at Hollywood High and seeing what they do with it, and she can nail feelings of loneliness and disengagement, like when she details trips abroad and strained love affairs. Other stories fall into the realm of the fabulous, with late nights at the Chateau Marmont and star-studded parties.
Babitz uses language to surprise and startle a reader. When she writes on falling for someone at a party, her language is dreamy:
..how is it that I remember him still as coming in alone from the stars? Cupid let go with a spear dipped in purple prose, not just an arrow, and then he drew another one, so there were two, one conventionally through my heart and the other through my head. They were both about 8 feet long and two inches thick. They were crude. I half rose up against the impact and he saw me across the room as he came in alone from the stars and then he disappeared.
Babitz describes a friend who could “somehow see past what things seemed into what things were,” which is an apt description of Babitz’s writing in this unforgettable book that burrows inside of you. Each vignette reads like a frenetic diary entry, full of sharp observations.
On New York, she writes:
…they’ll let you have stories, but you can’t ever think in a certain way. There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind. It’s like a tunnel where there’s no sky.
Later, on death: “Death, to me, has always been the last word in people having fun without you.” That line is from a vignette titled “Rosewood Casket,” in which Babitz muses on heaven (she describes it as the Catholic solution to this problem of not having any fun when you die), religion, stories from her mother, artists, the lack of seasons in Los Angeles, and drugs, eventually finding her way to her relationship with a musician named James Byrns, whom she describes as “an alarm clock that aroused me from sameness.”
In this same story, she writes:
What I wanted, although at the time I didn’t understand what the thing was because no one ever tells you anything until you already know it, was everything, or as much as I could get with what I had to work with. I wanted, mainly, a certain kind of song.
Babitz is a melodious writer who hits every note there is. As Lili Anolik of Vanity Fair said, “Eve Babitz is to prose what Chet Baker is… to jazz.” Go to the party with her, even if you can’t catch her.