Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

20 October 1993

Missing Angel Juan
By Francesca Lia Block
Harper Collins, $14

Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys
Charlotte Zolotow/Harper Collins, $3.95 paper

Witch Baby
Charlotte Zolotow/Harper Collins, $3.95 paper

Weetzie Bat
Charlotte Zolotow/Harper Collins, $3.95 paper

ROC, $8 paper

"The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school," begins Weetzie Bat , the first in Francesca Lia Block's remarkable series of beautiful and bizarre paeans to growing up weird on the West Coast, "was because no one understood. They didn't even know where they were living" (Weetzie, 3). Weetzie lives in Los Angeles, a fairy-tale city in which commodities and fetish objects cohabitate without embarrassment--a lyrical land of sunshine and shamanism.

Block writes for the young adult in all of us, without flinching or condescension. Always able to separate the fascinating from the phony, she addresses what I assume are girls' real fears and passions with a sassy brand of magical-realism and private language. The fourth and most recent installment in her series, Missing Angel Juan , transports Witch Baby, Block's darkest woman-child, and Mexican boyfriend Angel Juan to New York City. The themes, rhythms, ups, and downs remain much the same, although you can sense her characters gasping for space and sunlight among the cold, dark towers. The change of scenery is a smart and welcome change of pace, but since the book requires familiarity with its predecessors to be appreciated fully, I'd suggest a linear approach and begin with Weetzie Bat..

At first meeting, a late-'70s punk confection, pretty in pink Harlequin sunglasses, feathered headdress, leather moccasins, and fringed minidress. Weetzie loves Los Angeles, especially her special West Los Angeles of the senses. This LA, no city of quartz, is an endless spectacle of costumed waitresses, faux-Venetian architecture, cornucopic cuisine, and silly souvenir toys. (Block loves to circumscribe her characters' enthusiasms with sensuous lists of names, foods, aromas, sounds, whatever.) At home Weetzie is a tourist, the contented denizen of such unforgettable 1970s hot spots as Oki Dog, Canter's, and the late, lamented Tick Tock Tea Room.

Her parents are the former starlet Brandy-Lynn, who now lives for martinis and remorse, and a frustrated, drug-addicted father, Charlie Bat, who blew off Hollywood special effects for New York theater, then ODs. (The author's father, Irving Alexander Block, wrote that most id-ridden of SF films, Forbidden Planet .) Weetzie moves into a fairy-tale cottage with her best friends, the gay lovers Duck and Dirk, as well as her perfect filmmaker paramour, My Secret Agent Lover Man. When Weetzie wants a baby and MSALM gets cold feet, she sleeps with both Duck and Dirk. Their daughter, Cherokee Bat, is an untarnished blonde sprite who yearns for something "faster, quieter, darker, shimmering" (Cherokee, 6).

The briefly departed MSALM fathers his own child, Witch Baby, whose tangled feral darkness challenges the others' blonde light. In Witch Baby she runs off to search for her mother--drug-addled Vixanne Wigg, leader of a wig-wearing coven disguised as a Jayne Mansfield fan club--and learns how "black sheeps express everyone else's anger and pain" (Witch Baby, ). Now teenagers, the half-sisters form the band Cherokee and the Goat Boys with boyfriends Raphael Chong Jah-Love, the dreadlocked son of a Jamaican-Chinese couple, and Angel Juan, an illegal Mexican busboy. When the two couples come of age, as they say, it is both anxious and groovy. Throughout the series, Block reinvents the extended family as an inclusive microtopia, whose sexually and racially liberated members might love, work, play, eat, dance, and send "their rhythms into the canyons" (Cherokee, 116).

And while all this can't help but sound hopelessly kute, love and death ebb and flow throughout these novels with the inevitability of those natural disasters that karmically torment LA's wealthy hill and beach residents. Magic threatens to disappear as the SoCal ecology corrodes into radiant polluted sunsets. And premature sex, intoxicants, AIDS, fucked-up families, and environmental despair help make these books as honest an account of growing up mysterious, gifted, and Cali as has ever been writ. The stories become increasingly enigmatic as Block walks the tightrope of spirit and dirt between child and adult.

Block's only so-called adult fiction, Ecstasia , was an in-your-face allegorical fantasy about a youth-obsessed Los Angeles (renamed Elysia) in which the old are left to either struggle in the desert or decompose somewhere underground. All the old lotus-eating clichés rear up in her mythology-steeped story, released earlier this year, of the titular rock band's struggle to escape the evil city and reconstruct--surprise--a new, improved family. The novel has the slightly off odor of a manuscript left too long in a drawer. Where her YA novels giggle and skank with high-spirited female pleasure, Ecstasia could have been written by a graying Scientologist.

Block's latest book in the "Weetzie" series compensates amply for this misstep, however. A ghost story about love, death, and addiction, Missing Angel Juan begins in a "funky green fog" smelling of "hamburgers and jasmine" (1) before moving to wintery New York. The title can be taken either way as an increasingly strung out Witch Baby skates around the city in search of her "pounceably beautiful boyfriend" (100). Manhattan is a gray Elysia compared to LA, but retains a peculiar charm of its own. Headquartered in the late Charlie Bat's Village apartment, Witch Baby (AKA Niña Bruja) is aided by a charming, elderly gay couple, while the ghost of Charlie guides her through Central Park, the Met, Sylvia's in Harlem, and the scarifying Meat District on her quest.

Magic is everywhere in Francesca Lia Block's lyrical and resonant fables, which always point back to the primacy of family, friends, love, location, food, and music. At once modern and mythic, her series deserves as much space as they can command of daydream nation's shrinking bookshelves.