Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is the first piece of Los Angeles Literature I ever read. I was near the end of elementary school and just turned 12. I’d heard Block speak at the First Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books a month before. All I remember from that panel was that she had published a controversial young adult novel in 1989, that she began as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. The novel included two prominent gay characters, Dirk and Duck, who become each other’s committed partners. I do not remember thinking that two important gay characters in a novel was controversial, regardless that Block wrote young adult fiction. Although on some level, within the larger world, I knew it was.
I was interested in the novel because it was set in L.A. The city where I was born and growing up.
Weetzie Bat is a novel set mostly in Hollywood—Block’s home turf—told from the point of view of the title character. From the opening sentence, “the reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood,” Block informs the reader the novel’s about social outcasts. 1980s punks and the jacket copy echoes just that. Weetzie Bat is a “bleach-blond punk pixie.” Unlike her peers who, “didn’t even realize where they were living…,” Weetzie loves her Hollywood. “Marilyn’s prints were practically in their backyard at Graumann’s” and they can get “all-night potato knishes at Canter’s.” Then she meets Dirk, who does care.
In essence Weetzie Bat is a punk, fairy-tale, L.A. love story about the power of love, finding true love and the trials and tribulations that love causes. In the second chapter, this entails Weetzie and Dirk going, what Block calls, “Duck Hunting.” They are each searching for their own true love. “[Weetzie] met a toothy blond surf duck, who…was sleeping with everyone…Dirk didn’t do much better at the parties and bars.” Parties and bars always seem like the wrong places, but like most people, especially before the internet, where else can they look in search of that elusive true love? However, the novel is also about a lot more: an unconventional family, loss, aspects of bullying and gay bashing, absent fathers. Adult themes, in a young adult novel. Here, Block doesn’t gloss over the harshness of life, specifically Weetzie’s life. By including these themes, Block creates a grittiness to the prose that constructs Weetzie’s believable Hollywood. It’s a world full of themes teens have to deal with. And Weetzie Bat begins with Weetzie and Dirk in high school.
While a genie appears to grant Weetzie’s wishes of a man for both Dirk and herself, to the malevolent witch Vixanne, it’s Block’s rich, poetic, fairy-tale-esque prose that ultimately creates and sustains the fairy-tale quality of the novel. That, and its Hollywood setting. This prose occurs shortly after Weetzie meets her love, My Secret Agent Lover Man, and they kiss for the first time. “A kiss about apple pie á la mode with the vanilla creaminess melting in the pie heat.” And later, after My Secret Agent Lover Man has explained the world’s too dangerous to bring a child into, Weetzie thinks, “Beneath the [Hollywood] sign, the city was only lights, safe and sparkling like the Hollywood in ‘Hollywood in ‘Miniature’ on Hollywood Boulevard.” The reader understands Weetzie survives the world by finding the safe and familiar in her own world, as she searches for, and often finds the good.
So often this is how Los Angeles and its Hollywood neighborhood are portrayed, not only in L.A. literature, but in real life, in relation to the movie industry. The city is full of dreams; the dreams told in each movie, and how by working on a picture one’s own dreams of success and stardom can come true. There is this fairy-tale world where people can reinvent who they are and their past won’t follow. All these factors help frame Hollywood/Los Angeles as a supposed paradise. It is this unreality of L.A. and the movie industry. These are all elements of the “Hollywood novel,” that date back to the mid 1910’s with Vachel Lidsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) where he discusses the business of motion pictures. Such novels depict the writer’s own experience in or understanding of the movie industry. In Weetzie Bat, Block does the same, describes her own understanding of the “industry.” She explains of Weetzie’s father, a native New Yorker, “Charlie got a job as a special effects man…making cities and then making them crumble, creating monsters…and planets in space.” However, there are many other underrepresented parts of Los Angeles unrelated to the movie industry, or where Angeleños have no desire to reinvent themselves and become successful or famous through motion pictures. These other parts that make up Los Angeles are there to be explored in literature, to create a fuller understanding of the city.
Even though in L.A. Literature, some other books, including Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running, depict underrepresented parts of the city—Rodriguez, the dirt poor East L.A. Chicano barrio—novels like Block’s dealing with Hollywood, the movie industry or the idea of Los Angeles as a paradise, are far more common and famous. Even Weetzie is “discovered,” continuing the clichéd “industry” story line. As a waitress at Duke’s, a typical job one has before being discovered, she meets My Secret Agent Lover Man who says, “I’d like to put you in my film…” and coincidentally “she had always wanted to be a star.”
Even when Block flips the stereotyped depictions of L.A., Hollywood and the movie industry—particularly in depictions of the cynical side of motion pictures—she still portrays L.A. through overused stereotypes. This archetype is the crumbling of the “Hollywood dream” when people desperately cling to their fantasy of stardom as it dissolves or never materializes. This is the Hollywood novel’s most common theme and is seen throughout Los Angeles literature, from the use of the mood of desperate fantasy in Nathanial West’s Day of the Locust to Joan Didion’s increasingly exiled Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays.
In this long tradition, Francesca Lia Block almost does not add anything new or push these stereotyped concepts that keep Los Angeles at arm’s length, from a fuller understanding of what the city is. Weetzie loves the handprints outside of Grumman’s Chinese Theater and goes on the iconic hike to the Hollywood sign. And after Charlie’s Hollywood marriage to horror movie starlet Brandy-Lynn ends, he moves back to New York and says, “this Hollywood stuff is bullshit.”
However, when I first read the novel I didn’t think about any of this. I was too young to know or understand the stereotypical or overused ways in which Los Angeles is portrayed. At 12 I was young enough to miss some of “Weetzie Bat[’s]” more gritty or controversial elements, such as a “three way” between Weetzie, Dirk and Duck (at this point Dirk and Duck are committed to each other), when Dirk and Duck want to have a baby, but don’t want to know which is the father. I fell in love with the truly inventive prose, the fairy-tale grittiness in which Block pushes the definitions of words: “Duck Hunting” or “Shangri-L.A.” or “Hell-A” when describing her hometown; and the inventive names she gives her characters: Weetzie Bat, Jah-Love or My Secret Agent Lover Man.
As a native Angeleño, Block uses this inventive prose to push her narrative. Weetzie is born in Hollywood and lives there throughout the novel. It is the late 1970s and early 1980s Hollywood punk scene that Block grew up in, and through it the reader feels how intimately she knows and loves this world. “At a gig at Cathey de Grande, Weetzie stood in front of the stage feeling Buzz’s sweat flying off him as he sang.” It is the L.A. she experienced. And that’s the point. Before I understood the L.A. stereotypes, it was this strong sense of place—“[Weetzie] was thinking about buildings…in [Tiny Naylor’s] place was a record-video store, a pizza place, a cookie place, a Wendy’s, and…across the street, the old Paseur, where Weetzie and Dirk had bought kilts, was a beauty salon”—of someone connected to a neighborhood for so long they can picture exactly how it’s changed, is tied to that place because their history is its history. that was a key factor that drew me into the narrative. Los Angeles is Weetzie’s home, just like it’s mine. Even for people who are not from L.A. that sense of “home,” connectedness, familiarity, permeates throughout.
In making Weetzie a native Ageleño like herself, Block, by extension, claims that there are in fact, people from L.A. By doing so Block shifts the narrative—her narrative—of Los Angeles and Los Angeles literature from a city and literature of exile, where people portray the city in relation to Hollywood and the movie industry, to a deeper portrayal. For Weetzie, when she finally has Dirk and Duck’s baby later in the novel, she “had the baby at the Kaiser on Sunset Boulevard, where she had been born.” To an extent, this redeems her use of the stereotypical tropes: reinvention, reaching one’s dream, and the fallacy of all that. People like Weetzie and Dirk are not completely engaged with a stereotypical Los Angeles, but a grittier one, where Block is able to engage in and permeate a mild sense of depth with her controversial/adult themes. And to some, hometowns are so fundamentally a part of who they are, the culture they grew up among, the lives they’ve made, there is seemingly nowhere else to live.
After my parents determined the controversial parts—the gritty reality of Weetzie Bat—were not too graphic for this 12 year old, or for any 12 year old, (“Even though we’re ok, how can anyone love anyone when you can kill them just by loving them?” Duck writes in a note referring to when he learned of AIDS), I fell further in love with literature. I was truly excited to read because I was finally seeing my city portrayed, and how one’s hometown, the familiar, helps one to survive the harshness of life. At this time I had no idea that this was my first foray into Los Angeles literature, a long, rich lineage dating back to Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson. 1884.
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is a novel I continue read. Sometimes it’s an excerpt, a chapter or more, becoming lost in her engaging, unique fairy-tale-esque prose, to the power of love in all forms, and the struggle to find, then maintain true love that helps sustain us. It may be Block’s homage to her Hollywood, but not only is it a necessary young adult novel, it is a necessary novel for adults as well.