Luckily, my limited experience has revealed a sound bikeability in L.A., which runs counter to just about every casually held opinion. I suspect most of the sentiment that “you can’t bike in L.A.” comes from the many, many people who use the city’s geography inefficiently, living in Manhattan Beach but working in Pasadena or whatever. Andy Bowers has my back on this:
It's very easy for an L.A. driver to think that our city is as choked with humanity as Manhattan. From the driver's point of view, that's increasingly true—there are more and more evenings when every major street is stopped dead, and going a few miles can take hours. At work the next day, people grimly shake their heads and lament what's becoming of the city.
Not only has riding my bike enabled me to glide past all this gridlock (in fact, I'm often not even aware it's happening), but it has made me realize that it's an illusion. The city itself is not gridlocked—merely the narrow asphalt ribbons onto which we squeeze all our single-occupant cars. On the back streets I now take, everything is quiet and serene. The main roads may mimic Times Square on New Year's Eve, but the areas between L.A.'s clogged arteries comprise mile after square mile of low-density, low-stress residential bliss (the same is true, I suspect, of most American cities).
I plan to live somewhere in the Koreatown-downtown range, which should place me close to Metro stations. My secret weapon of rolling my bike onto trains (which Metro’s cool with) leaves very few worthwhile parts of the city inaccessible. Seeing as Metro Rail didn’t open until 1990, Norman, writing this novel in the early seventies, wouldn’t have enjoyed that option; for him, bike riding in Los Angeles meant bike riding in Los Angeles.
Rather, I should say that the Bike Rider wouldn’t have enjoyed that option. This guy, a protagonist who’s only sometimes around, seems to hold Norman’s place in the story. His supporting cast includes the Drag Cop, Derby, Flon, Marshal T — — — —, Sunny, and the Phantom Bike Rider. They live out their dramas, such as their dramas are, in a rapid succession of short chapters with titles like “Street of Worries,” “Famous Bicycle Mechanics,” “Corn in the City,” “In Ventura County,” and “In Ventura County (Again).” These blow by in 122 pages — though they feel like less — behind a now-oh-so-retro orange-and-brown cover.
Needless to say, Bike Riding in Los Angeles would look, to most eyes, like a supremely strange little book, and I haven’t even mentioned its being set entirely in a rounded, Helvetica-ish font. It doesn’t cross my own threshold of true weirdness; I recognize it more as a Silent Generation fever dream, though one built out of unusual components. Yet I feel something in its ghostly set of characters who pass laconically in and out of the bits-and-pieces narrative run through with L.A. history (an ill-fated 1890 Pasadena Bicycle Club excursion has an especially continuous presence) drawing me back for a re-read. No objection, since that’ll maybe take 45 minutes, and I’ve gotten into short novels lately.
(Coincidentally, I also just read about how how Norman got bullied by Harvey Weinstein over his writing credit, alongside Tom Stoppard, for Shakespeare in Love. Peter Biskind talks to him about it in Down and Dirty Pictures, his book on the U.S.’ nineties indie film movement, about which more later.)