“Life’s Big Zoo” started off as a memoir and, like most memoirs, quickly turned into a fictional catcher in the rye bread, Jewish with an emphasis on “-ish” coming of age story set in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon, summer of ‘68 housed in an eclectic family with a refugee father, missing-in-action mother, wannabe rock star brother, wise and feisty Holocaust-surviving granny, and a suspected Nazi neighbor on a street named Wonderland that winds slightly to the left of the galactic center of the folk rock universe.
The story of a precocious kid growing up between the shadow of the holocaust and the bright lights of the sixties is heavily influenced by my own experience coming of age in Los Angeles on the fringes the sixties.
Being raised Jewish in a tumultuous era contributed to my perspective and isolation. My dad wouldn’t let me join the Boy Scouts because the uniforms reminded him of the Hitler Youth of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany. I don’t remember not knowing about the Holocaust that my father and his parents escaped just in time. Most of their extended family weren’t so lucky. Growing up with this history meant being an outsider in mainstream America.
But in the sixties, outsiders were everywhere. The sixties were a time for seeking meaning and searching outside one’s faith or tribe of origin for universal truths. I was very aware of this, even as a kid. 1968 was a year that still looms larger than life. Rigged elections, assassinations, wars, riots, rock and roll.
I set the story in Laurel Canyon because I grew up nearby, though I was too young to fully participate. The Canyon was home to Joni Mitchell, CSNY, The Doors, and everyone in between (including The Monkees, my favorite band at the time). Laurel Canyon was an artistic and cultural nexus like Paris between the world wars or Woodstock, NY on the other side of the country. “Colorful” would be an understatement.
But color is the flip side of darkness and I saw plenty of both. Like Max Strauss, my young protagonist, I saw the sixties unfolding from the window of the Los Angeles city bus I rode across town to my “special” elementary school. I listened to KHJ (“Boss Radio for Boss Angeles!”) and Wolfman Jack on my transistor radio, graduated to FM, dreamed of starting a garage band, and was scared by the nightly news.
I figured that if the H-bomb didn’t get me, the war would. Few of my classmates expected to live past the age of thirty and some didn’t. In the book, Max’s musician brother, the draft-age, poor student Tommy, brings the specter of Vietnam, the spirit of rebellion and the dream of love, peace, and music. In the sixties and early seventies, lots of our big brothers went off to war or took to the streets to fight against it.
Early readers love the feisty Nana character who survived Dachau and refuses to let history repeat. While humor permeates the entire story, there’s also increasing gravitas as Max and Nana tries to resolve and unfinished family mystery in Germany.
We’d all like to think of ourselves as heroes, but history suggests that most of us would remain silent if threatened. In “Life’s Big Zoo” I suggest that heroism wears many faces and has no age limit.I’m hoping that baby boomers will find some universal truths and that younger readers will learn something about their parents (and grandparents!) in seeing the kaleidoscopic world of 1968 through the eyes of a twelve year-old mensch.
Among the many wise things my grandmother told me one that rings true time and again is that God keeps a big zoo. In the summer of 1968 I joined the menagerie.
I hope you enjoy the ride.
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(Image courtesy of Spike Stewart)