Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. Today, YA author, former Gawker editor and 'Fine Lines' guest-writer Emily Gould rereads 'Weetzie Bat', Francesca Lia Block's 1989 novel about a punk Los Angeles alternafamily.
Confession time: I've never in my life been to Los Angeles, and I hope I never have to go. It's not because I hate Hills-style always-eyelinered girls and the idea of having to drive everywhere, though of course I do. It's because ever since I was thirteen or so I've had a very specific dream-vision of LA in my head, and I don't want to chance puncturing it. It's a city where "you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer's Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs" and "there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter's, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, even, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers."
It's the dreamy 1980s magical-realistic Los Angeles of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series, and even if it never existed, I would like to go live there, in a world where everyone drives vintage cars and lives in a "cottage with one of those fairy-tale roofs that look like someone has spilled silly sand" with "roses and lemon trees in the garden."
In the Weetzie Bat books, the jacaranda is always in bloom, and every character is forever going to the beach to drink pink champagne and eat something with avocados in it. Also, the books are about a teenage girl with a bleached-blond flat top named Weetzie who lives with her gay best friend Dirk and his boyfriend Duck, who sleep with her so she can have a baby named Cherokee because the love of her life, whose name is My Secret Agent Lover man, doesn't want a child, but everything works out okay and they end up all raising the baby together. Can you believe that, in 1989, someone had the audacity to publish Weetzie Bat as a book for teengagers?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we start unraveling the story of Weetzie, let's meet her creator, Francesca. I remember staring at her author photo on the jacket of my first Weetzie book - a gift from my own personal Dirk, fittingly - and wondering what on earth was going on with this witchy lady?
She wasn't beautiful, at least, not in any traditional sense of the word. She had a long nose and a long, skinny face with maybe a little bit too much makeup on it. But the come-hither look in her eyes and her gauzy shirt - wait, could you even sort of see her nipples? - made a big impact on teen me. This was clearly a lady who knew what she was talking about when she described "a kiss about apple pie a la mode with the vanilla creaminess melting in the pie heat." She had probably spent her teenage years in the coolest clubs, "sitting next to the dj booth watching the Lanka girls in spandy-wear dancing around."
Rereading some of these pie a la mode descriptions now, they seem a little bit over the top and hard to take seriously, but those were different times, weren't they? Tori Amos was on the radio and those Neil Gaiman Death comic books were in everyone's backpack. For some people, the early 90s were about torn jeans with waffle-knit thermals underneath and flannel, but for a subset of girls, they were also about lace arm-warmers and curlicues of eyeliner drawn halfway down the cheek. There was something frilly and poetic going on, something ... sentimental? Because, as much as Weetzie Bat was about getting drunk at a gig and making out with a guy who smelled like "leather and beer," they were also unabashedly about love. Soulmate love that lasts forever because that's what you wished for (while rubbing a golden lamp, no less!). Weetzie Bat was a fairy tale for the kind of girl who wanted to be too tough for fairies but maybe still had a few blown-glass figurines of them somewhere in her room.
Sassy magazine (of course!) loved the books, calling Block's voice "minimalist yet poetic," but rereading them now, that 'minimalism' is only thing about them that sometimes bothers me. Major revelations and plot points whiz by in a haze of jacaranda blossoms and sunlight, like when Dirk tells Weetzie he's gay and she says, "It doesn't matter one bit, honey-honey."
But that breeziness is also Block's greatest strength: of an early bad-news sexual experience of Weetzie's, she writes only, "she kept her eyes on the bare bulb until it blinded her." By the end of the 70-page book, AIDS and infidelity and suicide and childbirth have all been dispatched in this simple style - and it pretty much works.
On the last page, Weetzie and Dirk and Duck and Secret Agent Lover Man are raising the next generation of Weetzie Bat book characters - their children Cherokee Bat and her half-sister Witch Baby - and everyone is living, if not happily ever after, happily, in fairytale LA. As she surveys her complicated family, Block writes, "Weetzie's heart felt so full of love, so full, as if it could hardly fit in her chest." At thirteen, it was so comforting to read about a world where that kind of love could persist in spite of all kinds of obstacles. Fuck, it's pretty comforting now.