When Weetzie's father leaves her family, it feels like all the magic has gone out of her world. Now they live in a city apartment instead of a canyon cottage. Weetzie's mother only appears able to drink and cry. Weetzie can't seem to make any friends at her new school, and no one will call her by the right name. But when an angel saves her mother from drowning, all the love she felt for her father is transferred to her angel. Gradually --- following a trail of riddles left for her in silvery envelopes --- she begins to make new friends and becomes re-enchanted with the City of Angels that is her home.
PINK SMOG is Francesca Lia Block's prequel to her groundbreaking book, WEETZIE BAT. Published over 20 years ago, WEETZIE BAT changed the profile of young adult literature to include books that blended myth and fairy tale with contemporary pop culture and grim teen realities. Instead of treating teen problems as transgressions to be punished, Block's books have always offered a glimmer of hope for even the most troubled characters. Her novels don't just tolerate differences, but offer radical acceptance to people in all walks of life and focus on the healing power of love.
Weetzie at 13 is just beginning to show the glimmers of the iconic character she will become. Finding her signature style, she clumsily follows school trends until she starts making clothes of her own. Her hair is "mousette" instead of bleached blond. Her ability to transform the sights and sounds of everyday Los Angeles into "Shangri-L.A." has only just begun to develop. PINK SMOG is a portrait of Weetzie in her formative years and the events that would later shape the story for which she is known.
Fans of WEETZIE BAT will recognize elements of later books here. Weetzie's father, Charlie, is a filmmaker, shares the same profession and bears a physical resemblance to the love of Weetzie's life (Secret Agent Lover Man in the later books). Weetzie has already become involved with friends on the fringe, like Lily Chin, whose eating disorder barely disguises that she's starving for affection, or Bobby Castillo, whose good looks and humor can't protect him from the harsh realities of hustling on the streets. Weetzie can see the magic in them, despite their difficult situations and the persecution they all experience at the hands of mean girls at school.
Though Weetzie is limited by her 13 years of life experience, darker elements also lurk in PINK SMOG, as they do in most of Block's books. For those who have wondered how Weetzie came to be emancipated at such an early age, her mother's difficulty to pull herself out of a tailspin of depression and alcohol provide a portrait of a child desperately trying to cope with parents who are unable to care for her. Likewise, Weetzie's sinister neighbors, who she imagines to be her father's second family, raise questions about what is actually going on. Are they real people or figments of her vivid imagination that needs both villains and heroes to see her through a difficult time?
I first encountered WEETZIE BAT in college. It changed my mind about youth literature, which I had given up in junior high. Instead of dividing the good kids (prom dresses, boyfriends, best friends) from the bad kids (teen pregnancies, drug habits, terminal diseases), it featured characters that resembled people I knew. It's also notable that Block's books were some of the first I read that presented a fluid range of sexualities as a completely normal part of human life and not a problem to be solved.
To understand how remarkable this is, you have to realize that WEETZIE BAT was first published in 1989, well before the brutal beating of Matthew Shepherd brought to light the plight of many gay teens. But part of what made that crime so shocking is that, by 1998, it was far more normal to know someone who was out in high school. The recent "It Gets Better" campaign has made me wonder how much better it has actually gotten to be an openly gay teen in an American high school.
"Love is a dangerous angel," says Dirk in WEETZIE BAT, giving the series about Weetzie and her "almost-family" its name. As the book deals with (among other things) the then-much publicized problem of AIDS, this statement refers to the actual death sentence that worried much of youth culture at the time. But the message is still relevant, even if times have changed. Love is dangerous, it makes us vulnerable to loss, and Block's books, more than any others, have always captured what it's like to take a chance with loving a lost soul in the attempt to save your own.
A number of the friends I had from the "Weetzie" period of my life are now gone. Many of them, like brilliant meteors, didn't even last that long. Some vanished to addictions, bad relationships, or to the streets when they couldn't solve problems on their own. And I still have a habit of looking for missing faces among kids on the street, forgetting that if they survived, these people would no longer be young.
I suspect I'm not the only person to have this response to Francesca Lia Block's books, which makes PINK SMOG a challenge to place. Not only is it not WEETZIE BAT, for readers already familiar with the original, it can be a reminder of how we've aged or what we've lost. For those unfamiliar with WEETZIE BAT, they will miss many of the allusions that make this book great. Instead of viewing it as a prequel, perhaps it's best to see PINK SMOG as the sixth installment of the series.
But that doesn't seem fair to a book that easily stands on its own. Putting aside the strong personal feelings I have about Block and her books, PINK SMOG works as a coming-of-age story about a girl in 1970s Los Angeles. Written as a love song for a city that feeds off the hopes and dreams of the young, it's also an elegy to those who lived and lost there, and to many who died young. Weetzie's birthday, Block tells us, is on the same day that Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe died. Juxtaposing images of the voluptuous and vulnerable star, with an awkward and flat-chested teenager, Block makes a case for Weetzie to become a star of her own.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood