Before she moved up to Portland, author and journalist Nancy Romelmann (who has written for WW) lived in Los Angeles and gathered stories from cops, immigrants and youth. She has retold the tales in articles in The New York Times Magazine, LA Weekly and other publications, and has just published her first novel inspired by the story of a real L.A. youth.
Shuffling along Hollywood's hot and hostile pavement, Mary carries her newborn baby, dodging the cops suspicious of her group of drug-addict friends. Rommelmann's The Bad Mother follows Mary as she struggles for survival as a young transient. When her mother died, Mary was told to avoid social services by fleeing from San Francisco to sunny Los Angeles. In L.A., this wayward youth is dragged into a den of sin—a loft at a motel occupied by some very checkered characters who do what they can to support her and her baby.
"Hollywood herself is the bad mother of the title," says Rommelmann, but Mary doesn't model anyone's version of ideal parenting. Though she fears the influence of her housemates' nasty habits on her newborn, Mary tows the baby along on adventures led by speed-addict Sofia and alcoholic MeeMee.
Though the speedy dialogue and vivid descriptions risk cliché—"Dean pulled off his tank top and peeled back a bandage to show a new jailhouse tattoo on his chest, a scabbed-over patch he said was two hands in prayer"—it is easy to get swept up into Mary's world. Rommelmann casts an excellent, gritty mood that brings the reader right into the loft, beside Mary as she watches the circus parade around her.
But the attention to style comes at the sake of clarity. It's hard to keep track of the book's dozen characters, who enter the narrative with little pause for introduction. We aren't told much about Mary, either, including her age, ethnicity, reasons for keeping her child, and why she stays with her abusive drunken boyfriend. But what it lacks in clarity, it more than makes up for in color. Rommelmann's inspiration for The Bad Mother came from a young woman she met—whose all-too-common story is tragically rarely told.
GO: Nancy Rommelmann reads at Ristretto Roasters, 3808 N Williams St., 288-8667. 7 pm Wednesday, March 30. Free.