Review by George Yatchisin
A fascinating smudging of the notions of the novel, Ashton Politanoff’s You’ll Like It Here alternates between being charming and creepy, nostalgic and prophetic, dreamy and mundane. As he explains in his introduction, Politanoff, a Redondo Beach, California native since he was 8, dove into local archives upon his mom’s death and came out with this odd duck book. Fascinated by what he found, particularly from 1911-1918, especially since the period seemed to rhyme with our current age, he built a found novel, of a sort, compiling very brief news item “chapters” that never add up to a distinct plot, but certainly build mood and themes.
Dropped into his acknowledgements is this important explanation of how he saw this project: “While I have used historical situations and newspaper clippings as the basis of this project, names have been changed, dramatic structure has been favored over historical accuracy, and facts have been expanded, all with the aim toward fiction and my own poetic and aesthetic concerns.”
Readers, of course, have no idea what’s inspiration, quotation, fact, or fiction, but that only makes it clear those terms blur too easily. In addition to World War I and the Great Influenza epidemic that slowly infiltrate the book, one item less directly commented upon was the birth of Modernism, and if one wants to consider stream-of-consciousness one of that movement’s hallmarks, You’ll Like It Here is a form of civic stream-of-consciousness. Instead of Joyce’s Dublin as seen from the Blooms’ and Stephen Dedalus’s head, we get Redondo Beach, carved out of copied or crafted headlines and stories that tend to lean toward the old journalism adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Well, given this book is seaside noir, perhaps that should be “if it drowns, our editors are jumping up and down.”
Although one section ends, both authorial tongue and medical diagnosis in cheek, as it were, “Morbidity is not anticipated,” death is determinedly everywhere in Redondo Beach. Drowning is an ever-present danger starting with the novel’s initial entries, despite the book offering a questionable how-to about the ways to avoid going under. First we get a dunking for comedic effect, but soon after an actual tragedy. Politanoff’s uses of the newspaper stories lets him write, rip up, and revise, ever questioning the notion of journalistic objectivity, so fitting as he’s drawing on sources from the birth of yellow journalism. (A crucial side note: despite all the people, often featuring Dickensian names—for instance the two men who have a bike collision, Willie Wall and Roy Bentz—that populate the book, to call them characters seems almost too strong a use of the literary term.)
While the book’s title is a real estate “go west, young man” come on, the book itself is a corrective to any PR sale. After all, one only has to fast forward 20 years from the time period of You’ll Like It Here to be bumping along in a jalopy with the Joads into a very different dream of California. Of course, it only took the first Californio to say to the one who wanted to be second, “We don’t want your kind here.” That’s how the bossy, anonymous “objective” editorial newspaper voice grows in ominous power, for as it claims at one point, “Within these Sunday afternoon observations exist a clear moral on how to live your life.” And that’s also while that voice offers ever more dubious advice as in the entry Medicinal Properties which reads, “Applying tobacco to an open wound not only stops the bleeding but also promotes healing.” No doubt Big Tobacco’s advertising check was in the mail.
The book’s cover, two-thirds blank, suggests the way to read the book—it’s up to you to fill in the negative space. Entries tend to read like prose poems—note Politanoff asserts his “poetic and aesthetic concerns” in his acknowledgements—perhaps none more sadly beautiful than “Tea Time:”
<blockquote>The man who had lost sight in both eyes trained his hearing to make up for any lack. He could tell by the sound of his footsteps whether he was in the middle of the road or off to the side, whether he was walking past a brick or frame house, a fence, or an open field. Which eye do you think I can see out of? he asked a skeptic. The left one of course, was the reply. The blind man opened his penknife and tapped the left eye with the little blade. It made a sound like tea time.</blockquote>
The book also includes black-and-white archival pictures, the kind that evoke a time that can often be hard to believe existed, starting with the boy in the first photo on the beach staring out of the past right at us while the adults behind him cavort, seemingly unaware of the camera. The shaded contrast makes it tricky to see his features, but also allows us to conjure up his thoughts of us. The book challenges us to consider how all of life is an act of reading, with newspaper “facts” and “documentary” photos far from the least things we must interpret.
Magic is sure to happen, from an ostrich autopsy to a plague of grasshoppers, from the Countess of Marco arrested for smoking her Turkish cigarette to a dozen women arrested for a crystal ball rebellion (the early stirrings of feminism also haunt the book). But what isn’t come and gone. As the entry Mystery Sighting has it, although “sea monsters and fish of the Jonah variety have been rife at this port for the last week,” the reported large man-eating shark “appeared for a brief moment above the water, only to submerge from sight beneath a passing wave.” A well-tuned book You’ll Like It Here helps teach us how to be attuned to whatever wonder might break our daily tides.