LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles is a riddle, an enigma, a surprise. It is everything it appears to be plus many things it does not. The palm trees and the pools, the Mercedes and the movie deals are all real enough, but there is more here, much more. "Most people who write about L.A. think it radiates out from the Beverly Hills Hotel: they have no idea there are parts of the city you have to cross a river to get to," says novelist John Gregory Dunne. "This is a great city and nobody knows it."

Perhaps the greatest surprise about Los Angeles, a well-kept secret in a city that likes to let on it has nothing to hide, is what an extraordinary book town it is. The place does not feel bookish, it does not give off the tweedy old school tie effluvia of New York or Boston, but when it comes down to cases, the putative Sodom of southern California is strikingly literary.

For one thing, the entire area, with Los Angeles as its linchpin, is a bookseller's Eden. "As far as the publishers are concerned, more books are sold in southern California than in any other area of the country, and that includes New York City," says Larry Todd, general manager of Hinter Books, the area's most prestigious chain. And when talk turns to rare and collectible books, the diversity and strength of the market is exceptional. The southern California chapter of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America lists 40 members; there are no less than 14 well-stocked used and specialty bookstores in a three-block area of Westwood alone, and the Heritage Book Shop, just off the madness of the Sunset Strip, is one of the largest antiquarian bookstores in the country, having sold everything from the Ace Double paperback edition of William Burrough's Junkie to first folios of William Shakespeare. "From all reports the quality and condition of Los Angeles rare books is superior to that of New York and London," says Heritage's Gordon Hollis. "There are no better books to be found."

The publishing scene in southern California, though no rival to the omnipotent East, is surprisingly diverse. The venerable, 142-year-old firm of A. S. Barnes has recently moved itself and its 1,500-book backlist from the wilds of New Jersey to San Diego. Further north, in Santa Barbara, is the literary Black Sparrow Press, known for quality poetry publishing, and in the unfashionable L.A. suburb of Northridge is the Lord John Press, which puts out a line of finely printed collector's editions of modern authors like Donald Barthelme, John Updike and Eudora Welty. "Because of the sheer weight of population and cultural interest out here, the Los Angeles area is becoming an increasingly better place to be a publisher," says Noel Young of Santa Barbara's Capra Press, publishers of many of Henry Miller's last books. "After all, 12 million people can't be wrong."

A number of those people are writers, and not just unemployed, disenchanted and would-be screenwriters or purveyors of blockbusters like Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins, Joan Didion and Dunne live here, as does poet Charles Bukowski, biographer Fawn Brodie, political analyst Richard Reeves, science fiction cult heros Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, plus just plain good writers like Christopher Isherwood, Josh Greenfeld, John Rechy, Brian Moore, Michael Crichton, Tommy Thompson, Ross Thomas, Joseph Wambaugh, Darryl Ponicsan, Irving Wallace and Irving Stone. The list is close to endless. Even Gore Vidal lives in Hollywood for six months out of the year. "Why the hell shouldn't they live here," says Isherwood, a bit peeved by the question. "It's the best place on earth."

For while outlanders scoff at L.A., the writers who live in its serene climate are secure in the knowledge that they have chosen wisely. "I used to say this was a great place to write because it was so boring, but if that was ever true, it isn't any more," says Wallace, who runs a veritable literary factory out of his large house in Brentwood.

"People think you have to live in the middle of a huge city to be a writer, but of course it isn't so, and besides, it seems to me one meets everyone here, everyone seems to come here sooner or later," says Isherwood, who has a house near the ocean in Santa Monica. "Those wishing to be spiteful call Los Angeles a collection of suburbs, but what it is is an entirely new concept for a city. It's absolutely decentralized, so one doesn't feel this terrible necessity to get to the center of things."

A corollary of Los Angeles being what Wallace calls "an anthology of cities," a place where it takes half an hour to get from anywhere to anywhere, is that there is no literary establishment here, no hierarchy of writers, not even any meeting place for members of the writing trade, though the revered, trusty Musso & Frank's restaurant in Hollywood often gets the symbolic nod. Writers have never been clubby here -- when Pulitzer Prize winning historian Allan Nevins moved out from New York, he said what he missed most were "the subways and the company of other writers" -- and even groups nominally formed for writers tend to allow almost anyone in.

The advantage to a working writer of the city being all over the map, explains Dunne, is that "you don't spend your time talking about your work instead of writing."

"It's not as incestuous with other writers out here as it is back East," adds Irving Wallace. "I find many of my writer friends in New York see too many writers during business hours. Everyone hangs out together; they're always going up and talking to their publishers. It's just much easier to work out here."

If writers in L.A. argue about anything, it is the effect of having the easy money of the movie business forever hanging over their heads. Wallace, who wrote a number of screenplays in the 1950s, sees movies work as "a pit you might fall into. Instead of working for a couple of years on a novel for a $15,000 advance, you know you can go out to one of the studios and maybe get $100,000 to do a screenplay. The temptation is very dangerous. I don't think movies are good for a writer. The process simply involves too many people. You're not alone, damn it, it's not a writer's medium."

Dunne, who has just seen his latest novel, True Confessions, filmed from his screenplay, disagrees. "For a writer of books the nice thing about writing films is that it's non-involving, it's a craft, there's almost no ego involvement," he says. "It's no worse than teaching, and it's a hell of a lot better because it takes less time. If someone is going to be seduced by Hollywood, he would have been seduced by Zabar's. Seduction is in the person, not the place."

Though conscious that Los Angeles is not a literary establishment center but rather a city where, in Wallace's words, "unlike New York the writers can't be the stars because we have the movie stars," those who live here have only commiseration for their colleagues back East.

"New York is so terribly conscious of being New York. You see these 'I Love New York' signs everywhere," Isherwood says with something close to scorn. "Los Angeles just doesn't come on like that. No one would dream of saying 'I Love L.A.' No one thinks it's necessary to put it into words."