On the shelf
boom times for the end of the world
by Scott Timberg
Heyday: 304 pages, $20
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To read Scott Timberg’s recently published collection of essays, “boom times for the end of the world”, is to experience both a surge of cultural stimulation and an overwhelming sense of sadness. Timberg, who loved Los Angeles and cultural journalism with an intense passion, was one of the city’s indispensable chroniclers. For New Times LA and later the Los Angeles Times, he wrote about marginal authors and overlooked corners of the city. Timberg soaked up Los Angeles culture as only a thirsty outsider could (he was born in Palo Alto and raised in Maryland).
But his love was not always reciprocated. Despite some highly original work and glowing reviews, Timberg was fired from The Times in 2008, part of a wave of cutbacks at the newspaper and across the industry that hit cultural journalists particularly hard. He became a reluctant member of the informal economy, trying to make ends meet in a city that he was and is, despite or perhaps because of its many charms, too expensive to call home. He tried to move to Athens, Ga., with his wife and son, but Los Angeles was in his blood and he soon returned. He found freelance work. Both of his books were well received. But he never made it all the way back, financially or otherwise. He suffered from depression and in 2019 he committed suicide by jumping from a pedestrian bridge near downtown. He was 50 years old.
“Scott was so present that he then wiped himself out,” says Dana Gioia, a former California poet laureate and a friend of Timberg’s for many years. “Why did he do that? Because the culture was also exterminating. He just accepted what the outside world was telling him.”
“Boom Times” is both a celebration of prodigious talent and a farewell to a lost soul. Timberg found himself drawn to subjects the average reader might not be familiar with, such as John Rechy, the pugnacious and proudly narcissistic literary chronicler of the Los Angeles gay subculture. “The novelist, whose small stature, mischievous smile, and bulging chest give him the bearing of a well-exercised pixie, treats writing like one big fight he constantly trains for,” he writes in the originally published essay “The Egoist Romantic.” in New Times. Or the great jazz photographer William Claxton, who “did more than take amazing photographs of great musicians,” Timberg writes in “Eye on Cool.” “He created the visual reality of West Coast jazz, a whole new way of representing art.” Timberg was one of those guys who could write knowledgeably about seemingly anything, even though most of it was steeped in the culture of the city he loved.
I can relate too much to the Timberg tragedy. In 2019 I was fired from my job as a cultural critic for the Dallas Morning News, along with most of the artistic staff. I felt discarded and expendable, left behind by an institution that I had proudly served for many years. And then it kept raining. My life partner, Kate, was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease; she would be dead within 18 months. I was angry at the world and my own depression became the dominant voice in my head. He never said nice things.
My life and my head got better over time, as did the freelance workflow. But when I read Timberg, and when I read about him, it’s more than a passing sense of “There, but by the grace of God, I go.”
There is a bigger story here, one that Timberg lived and told. His 2015 book “Cultural Crash: The Murder of the Creative Class” is a personal but also analytical and deeply researched elegy for a certain type of work and those who do it. Timberg doesn’t just talk about artists. As he writes in the “Boom Times” essay “Down We Go Together,” adapted from the book, “A more useful understanding of the creative class would include anyone who helps create or spread culture. So, along with sculptors and architects, I mean disc jockeys, bookstore clerks, theater set designers, people who edit books in publishing houses, etc.
I could have added culture journalists to the list. None of the above is extinct, yet. All have been dramatically marginalized by an increasingly automated society that claims to value culture but is less and less interested in spreading the good word, at least beyond the clickbait fad and superficial fandom.
Among Timberg’s biggest fans is Steve Wasserman, the publisher of Heyday Books, which published “Boom Times” (he also published “Culture Crash” when he was at Yale University Press). Wasserman met Timberg when he left a publishing career in New York to take over book coverage for the Los Angeles Times in 1996. He was immediately greeted with an article by Timberg in the New Times, which asked, paraphrasing Wasserman, ” What the hell is this egghead?” coming to town, and why isn’t he doing as much as his critics think he should be doing to promote Los Angeles literature?
From there, Wasserman says, “Scott and I became allies in the project to raise the general level of literary conversation in Los Angeles, each from their own points of view.” They also became friends. Many of those who crossed Timberg’s path became his friends.
Wasserman remembers Timberg as a “patron saint of the displaced creative spirit.” He also believes that the city Timberg loved is much poorer without him.
“East coast snobs have always written off Los Angeles, claiming that the unrelenting sunlight had cooked the brains of the inhabitants,” Wasserman says. “Scott was opposed to that. He was a meteorologist who analyzed the changes in the changing climate of the city’s culture. To that extent, he was remarkably accurate in reporting him. He captured a city and its changing moods and performed an invaluable service to his readers.”
It’s hard to consider Timberg’s value to Los Angeles and not think of another deceased culture journalist, Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning music and food critic for LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. These were writers that stripped away reductionist stereotypes of a city as culturally vibrant as any in the world. They did it with wit and verve. For the most part, though, they did it with love.
To read “Boom Times for the End of the World” is to experience that love again and mourn the fact that Timberg is no longer here to feel it.
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.