Judgment Day is everyday with Mike Davis. The La Brea tar pits are his spiritual birthplace, apocalypse is his middle name and the plagues that visited the ancient Egyptians are his psychic companions. As readers of his earlier powerful apoca-literature, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, know, this mordantly scathing writer doesn’t just research his work, he exhumes it.
Damning humankind’s “malice to the landscape” and its abused inhabitants, Davis turned Southern California’s palm-strewn paradise into an allegory of fire and brimstone, a climactic urban horror story. “The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future,” he proposed in his signature work, City of Quartz, a decade ago. “The desert around Llano has been prepared like a virgin bride for its eventual union with the Metropolis.”
After setting the match to the City of Angels, Davis’s books illuminated parallel graveyards–ravaged cities, maltreated minorities and scenarios scarred by ecological and racial conflagrations ablaze in a decade less potentially holocaustical than our own. These days, when real life lives up to his nightmare visions–and Bill Moyers confirms that “if you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture”–this chronicler of urban pestilence might find still more readers for his new book, Dead Cities: And Other Tales.
As today’s citizens tremble to the color-coded warnings of Washington’s terror demonologists, they should be receptive to the narratives of this eloquent standard-bearer of ecological destruction. “Maybe God…is mad at us for making all those dirty movies,” as Davis quoted an LA columnist in Ecology of Fear. And Allah may be his willing guardian.
Godly, or simply secular, Davis’s preface, “The Flames of New York,” considers today’s troubles with his usual flair for the noir, relinquishing neither the dramatic style by which he turned the City of Angels into the City of Demons nor his rousing use of history. His vivid vituperation against post-9/11 America begins with H.G. Wells’s 1907 warning note about the “massacre of New York.” It works. Wells’s text is an ominous foreshadowing of our day, when “a foreign policy dominated by the Trusts and Monopolies entangles America in a general War of the Powers,” and “New Yorkers, still oblivious to any real danger, rally to flags, confetti and an imperial Presidency.”
In this preface, Davis milks Wells’s dark language to create a gripping warning of “the end of American exceptionalism” with a damning portrait of the “Last Days of America’s Pompeii.” He begins by mining pre-attack America’s terror-mongering, reminding us of the now “laughable” media-fueled warnings: “the occult menaces of black helicopters, killer asteroids, maddog teenagers, recovered memories.” And he offers sociologist Barry Glassner’s list of the overfeared, more common goblins thereafter, including “young Black men, street drugs, terroristic political correctness and so on.” The inventory extends to satanic preschools, road rage and other random ills, excluding little else but the West Nile virus, it begins to seem.
Schematically, the Dead Cities text that follows is divided into four parts: “Neon West,” “Holy Ghosts,” “Riot City” and “Extreme Science.” In truth, however, the contents of the four segments and the organization of the book seem to have little relationship to either the title or the chapters that follow. The structure and content are a far cry from the organizing thread of the splendid Ecology of Fear, which conveyed “The Dialectic of Ordinary Disaster” in a well-shaped series of ideas around a single core.
The work that follows seems journalistically competent and sufficiently substantiated, as this master of disaster prose displays his trademark mix of daily news and more recondite footnotes. Davis offers well-put environmental mottos on, say, the dangers of the capitalist big city: “because it dominates rather than cooperates with Nature.” And yet, the portrait of Dead Cities often seems spotty, more a prose performance and mélange of essays than a convincing portrait of cities, living or deceased; it lacks the connective tissue and cohesive content of his best work.
In fact, the whole premise of moribund cities, ably explored in Ecology of Fear, is so little elaborated here that reports of such cities’ “death” seem, well, especially exaggerated. For openers, while the world may be peering into a red-hot volcano, etc., etc., urban statistics and common impressions indicate that there has been a recent resurgence of many of the more congenial large and small urban cores across the continent. A case can certainly be made for Armageddon anon, but, at this date at least, the statement that “bin Laden et al. have put a silver stake in the heart of the ‘downtown revival'” is questionable.
This is not to deny that New Yorkers and others shudder at the state of their urban world, exacerbated by an autocratic presidency and abundant, brutal and questionable security measures. Nor is it to deny the mania for security evident in bulwarked courthouses and post offices abrim with antiterrorist paraphernalia–even before Congress passed the bureaucratization of Bush’s bunker mentality into law with a new agency. But, for all of Davis’s ongoing and legitimate excoriation of this nation’s urban, racial and social policies, much of that excoriation–and especially its fiery environmental catastrophe–seems excessive when generalized beyond LA.
Consider lower Manhattan itself. Here, leaders of commerce still grabbed for the gold with their usual alacrity, battling over redevelopment while the rubble was being cleared from Ground Zero, the shuttered windows opened and the ravaged buildings mended. Even later, developers still played roulette with the press, enticing reporters to applaud their redesigns for the World Trade Center site (including one P.T. Barnumesque proposal for a tower twice the size of Yamasaki’s original). Hubris, to be sure, but not cowering à la “Dead Cities.”
There is pleasure in reading individual passages and chapters of Davis’s prose; he is at his best when brandishing words like box cutters. “‘Irony,’ of course, is now an illegal alien in the land of liberty,” he writes. He shows his usual skill in finding facts and factoids, dotting his texts with footnotes like a medieval monk going for a twenty-first-century PhD. He is prescient, too, when he talks of the “Fear Economy”–those venture capitalists and Potomac-style pundits who market security from urb to suburb. Broken city budgets be damned. Equally, he mines the literature of government “terrorism” skillfully, pointing out, for instance, the assaults against those termed “Arab” or “Muslim” and underscoring the “vaguely worded and sinister powers” given by Congress to the Justice Department under PATRIOT, the “Proved Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
Notwithstanding, the fragmented and forced aspects of the book are evident, beginning with Davis’s opening chapter-cum-essay, “White People Are Only a Bad Dream…,” which plays on the anniversary of anthropologist James Mooney’s Western visit. Ostensibly tracing the story of the Native American leader Wovoka and his vision of “a unified Indian people resuming stewardship of the West after white civilization has been destroyed by a cataclysm of its own making,” the text meanders.
Davis follows with “Ecocide in Marlboro Country” which traces the work of Richard Misrach, one of many activist photographers in the long annals of the capturing of America’s landscape on film. To be sure, Davis displays his staple feelings in topped-out tones when discussing “Portraits of Hell” or those “national sacrifice zones” in our “Downwind” nation, now barely recognizable as part of the biosphere. Yet for all the cleverness on a micro level, the chapter remains more of an art-magazine essay than either an integrated or compelling record of those who have seen “the heart of the apocalypse.”
Like his earlier Magical Urbanism, criticized for its nonthematic approach, this book lacks both generalization and projection. History, Davis’s forte, which rounded out earlier works, is largely absent. His comments criticizing “The Subway That Ate L.A.” are more familiar than insightful. For all the verity of a well-reported phenomenon like “Las Vegas versus Nature,” with its commendable return to the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the work is shallow. The journalism may be enough to merit its inclusion in the collection, but the rapidly shifting building and rebuilding of Las Vegas’s dominion of dice makes the news in it dated, and the chapter loses vigor.
Davis remains our penman of lost souls and lost scenarios: He culls nuggets of avarice and depredation the way miners chisel coal. And his compassionate eye remains as keen as his prose. “On warm evenings, the homeless men who live furtively in the wastelands of Crown Hill like to set up old car seats and broken chairs under the scorched palms to watch the spectacle of dusk over Downtown Los Angeles,” he notes as he tells of downtown building near the end of Dead Cities, only to drift from there into the rather thin polemic that characterizes this collection.
Not that we don’t need a penman of his talent and polemical cast to lacerate today’s corporate climate and environmental degradation. Note the scientists’ warning during Thanksgiving week of “Glacier Park on Thin Ice,” or the news chronicle of how operator errors had released deadly nerve gas at the Army’s chemical weapons incinerator in Utah. Consult the reports of mercury in the Washington State environment or “Forest Cover Shrinking” from the sober-sided Society of Environmental Journalists. The disappointment is that despite Davis’s insightfulness as a critic and chronicler, he fails to shape each essay’s cri de coeur into an authentic and moving vision of apocalypse. These are the times that need the Mike Davis of past necrologies to create a more holistic portrait of our current Armageddon.