Once Upon a Time in Los Angeles: Kathryn Harrison’s “On Sunset”

“I barely make it down by bathtime,” she writes. By the time he pushes off from the bottom — the water flat as glass, his legs straight like a man’s — returns to the surface, and gasps, I am crying. No wonder she grew up to be a writer. And in order to insist that “the past isn’t over,” in the words of Faulkner, who also wrote, “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.”
This would seem to be the case with Kathryn Harrison, who has mined the events of her life across genre. And maybe the statement is true — of course it is. NOVEMBER 14, 2018
THERE’S SOME DEBATE about what Joan Didion meant when she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Did she leave out two words? The author has spared us: On Sunset, as wise and all-seeing as it turns out to be, is also a mostly happy story. (That’s the happy ending — for the reader, anyway.) And this time she has written a story — many stories: many characters; and a heroine, too (herself, that is) — to live alongside those by authors who made all of us want more: Dickens, Barrie, C. And that children are listening. When her grandfather builds her a chair in the top of an avocado tree, she tells him, “I love it. And he is, of course (that’s what fathers and mothers, good ones and bad, always do), although, mercifully, not in these pages, not under our watch. And if he leaves something out, “Go back,” she insists. He didn’t meet Margaret, his second wife, until 1941, when he was 51. Say her new memoir, On Sunset, is your introduction to the author. Obviously, they got married; but it’s how they circuitously found their way to California — and each other — that provides romance and suspense, as well as a scaffolding for the events of the present, in which they are raising the only daughter of their only daughter, and, on the tightest of budgets, attempting to hold on to their beloved house. Moreover, her grandmother’s trove of documents, letters, photos, newspaper clippings, a selection of which are included in this volume, is prodigious. and Mrs. “I saw the beach. Too bad about these parents, you might think to yourself; too bad about the father gone entirely missing; and that mother — so vain and selfish and mean. I know I did. Though she emphatically objects, young Kathryn knows the truth: her grandfather is old, nearly 80, when, she writes, “I ask, I wheedle, I beg, he concedes.” She watches from the side of the swimming pool as “he blows all the air from his lungs and allows himself to sink to the bottom of the deep end, where he sits over the drain, legs crossed like my own.” And then:
I don’t know why I ask him to do this terrible thing, only that I can’t help it. What I do is, I add up his two legs to make a second heart, should the first one fail. Of course. Of her 16 books, half are nonfiction; of those eight, four, at least, are the stuff of her life, the most famous being The Kiss, in which she bravely — beautifully, excruciatingly — recalls her incestuous affair with her father, who left when she was a baby, and with whom she was reunited when she was 20 years old. In that last sentence, the end of a section, lies the portent — the danger, the dread, that lurks between the lines throughout. And it will make you remember how it was to be a child. S. I don’t know what Love, American Style is, or why it in particular among television programs other people talk about has earned my grandmother’s opprobrium. I don’t see the wrinkles or liver spots or fingers gnarled by arthritis. And maybe that’s the key to the charm of this book: so many stories, all true, all inspired by young Kathryn’s desire to hear them. I’d trade Christmas and a birthday for permission to watch The Brady Bunch …
Poor girl. More than my bicycle.” And what does she do? It will, as with the best, make you laugh and cry. And when he’s tucking her into bed that night,
I find his hand in the dark and fit mine into it. Harold Jacobs, nine years her senior, though also English and Jewish, grew up poor; sought his fortune in Alaska; fought in the Great War; worked as a fur trapper, a bookkeeper, and a salesman; and eventually wound up in the Southland. But say you haven’t read her before. Harrison’s touch is light (she’s a gorgeous writer), but, finally, notwithstanding the age of the narrator, her book is for grown-ups, and its adult concerns extend beyond the fate of a house. “Everything,” I say. Even so, you might also suppose, once you’ve finished the book, what a wonderful childhood: to grow up in that rambling old mansion on that famous Boulevard with those dear, funny old people (her mother’s parents), eccentric, doting, storytellers, both, and willing to tell the same astonishing stories over and over. I love it more than anything. Which is to say that the story isn’t a fairy tale, quite — although what’s a fairy tale without danger and dread between the lines? Margaret Esme Sassoon Benjamin, an heiress, was born in 1899 to merchant-class Jews (they were considered “the Rothschilds of the East”), raised in Shanghai, and educated in boarding schools in London. Of course if you have read Harrison — the memoirs, in particular — you know the truth: the circumstances of her youth were far from ideal. I am not allowed chewing gum, carbonated beverages, nail varnish, or to go to bed with damp hair. The Farmers Market and the Griffith Observatory and the oozing La Brea Tar Pits. Peanut butter does not exist. She spends the day there with just “the right book”: Alice in Wonderland. And I tell him all the other things I saw too. And when there are stories — because stories, why ever we tell them, are so much a part of childhood, aren’t they? Well, such are the myriad pleasures of this book — it’s not just memoir, not just family history, not just a meditation on culture and class, but a mystery, too. “Tell you what again.”
“The jobs, all the jobs you had in London.”
“Well, let’s see […],” he begins. And so he does. You only have to read that one or another, The Mother Knot, about coming to terms with maternal neglect, to understand that the truth is painfully complicated: again and again, in the Faulkner way, Harrison has artfully reckoned with severe emotional trauma. Maybe she did. “I don’t think so,” he says. No wonder she loves hearing and telling them. True, too, to the nature of childhood itself, full of whimsy and hope and awe, all the more so, maybe, when an only child and her elderly grandparents have each other’s undivided attention and love. More on that in a bit. Even here, in On Sunset, in what amounts to a cameo role, her mother is withholding and cold. I saw the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier.”
He laughs. “What do you want to hear about that for?” But the girl knows she doesn’t really mean it. But also we tell ourselves stories in order to connect; to carry on with some faith that it matters if we do. “I curtsy when introduced to adults,” Harrison writes:
I endure mustard plasters, cod liver oil, and other torments generally imagined to be reserved for children left behind in a previous century. And even so. “He never says it’s silly to ask him to recite what I already know,” she adds. And Lewis Carroll, too, who, in this account, is one of her favorites. And that whatever we tell ourselves for whatever reasons, we tell each other stories in order to live. For now, the point is, if only by virtue of her parents’ absence, On Sunset rings true to what we already know. Lewis. What happened to the money? ¤
Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and an editor-at-large at the Los Angeles Review of Books. In this way, Harrison braids her material: the story of her childhood, the story of her grandparents’ lives. For instance: “Tell me them again,” young Kathryn commands, wanting to hear what he did for a living before he left the old world for the new. As for her grandfather, he never demurs. Oh no, thinks the reader, oh no, oh no, this lovely grandpa, the only good father she has, is going to die. As with the best stories, whatever the genre — fiction, nonfiction, fairy tale — it turns out On Sunset is more than one thing: not simply nostalgic, but tinged with anticipated sorrow and grief. One which I am wholly grateful to have read, and whole-heartedly recommend. But this is the stuff of stories, right? I never see the white hair on his chest, or how that chest is bony where other fathers have muscles. There wasn’t a thing I didn’t see. Harold Jacobs, 11027 Sunset Boulevard (to 11027, itself), to a way of life, which, even then, a half a century ago, was hilariously and delightfully old-fashioned. Also a Valentine — to Mr. Did she mean to say, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live with ourselves”? By that time, at almost 42 and having “spurned” a great number of suitors, she, too, was living in Los Angeles (what were the odds?). “My head goes through the top.”
“Yes,” he says, and he asks me what I saw. “Again?” says her grandmother, when the little girl asks for one she already knows.