L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
This contest may seem like an unfair one for Hollywood Regional Final of our Best L.A. Novel Tournament. What Makes Sammy Run?, written by Budd Schulberg, who would later win an Oscar for writing On the Waterfront, is synonymous with Hollywood, while Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One spends only a couple chapters there. Still, both books poke fun at a brand of phoniness that's become synonymous with the place.
The titular Sammy is Sammy Glick, who lies and scams his way from the Lower East Side tenements up the ranks of New York journalism and then Hollywood, his story told through the eyes of the older, wiser, morally principled Al Manheim, who can't help but tag along as he attempts his own transition from one coast to another.
The Loved One, published just seven years after Sammy, in 1948, goes the opposite direction, starting in Hollywood and moving elsewhere. It follows Dennis, a poet who came to L.A. from England to write for Hollywood but now works works at a pet cemetery called the Happier Hunting Ground. When his roommate Sir Francis gets fired from his studio job and then commits suicide, the funeral arrangements bring Dennis to the fancy human cemetery Whispering Glades, where he falls for a mortician named Aimee.
It's hard to know who we're rooting for in The Loved One. Dennis reveals himself to be callous, while Aimee, despite some charm, is too much of a dim bulb to fully arouse our sympathies as she wavers in her affection between Dennis and her boss, Mr. Joyboy. The book is meant to satirize our (and L.A.'s) superficiality and tendency to cover up the real with the glitz, along with the insularity and snobbery of Waugh's own British community in Hollywood. But the specific does not evoke the universal with any power. For instance, the Guru Brahmin, an advice columnist who advises Aimee on her love life, is actually two people, one of whom disparages her behind her back. Surprise — it's just a job.
The Loved One does have some amusing moments, like when Sir Francis, who works in a studio publicity department, talks about rebranding an ingénue named Baby Aaronson into one named Juanita del Pablo:
"Leo made her Spanish. He had most of her nose cut off and sent her to Mexico for six weeks to learn flamenco singing. Then he handed her to me. I named her. I made her an anti-Fascist refugee. I said she hated men because of her treatment by Franco's Moors. That was a new angle then. It caught on."
And Del Pablo's fate will worsen. It's a notion more absurd than anything in Sammy. But it's a one-off joke, and some of the book's jokes become stretched thin across a whole novel, even one of 164 short pages. For this reader, it's a souffle that does not rise.
One problem is that the satire of the funeral industry has lost some potency in the half-century since it was published. The original New York Times review warned that it "is not a book which the squeamish or queasy of stomachs could face with composure," but these days even those with the most sensitive digestive tracts could walk it off without a Pepto-Bismol. Waugh may have gotten there first, but today, the absurdity of dancing around death with euphemisms and up-selling someone on a fancy coffin are familiar jokes (the funeral director in The Big Lebowski calls one urn "our most modestly priced receptacle"). Funeral parlors sprucing up the dead for their loved ones are a well-known phenomenon (check out Bernie, last year's Jack Black movie about a funeral director who does something truly shocking). And dogs have seen comedically tragic fates at least as far back as There's Something About Mary.
Sammy, to this reviewer, is also a little musty. The stereotype of the ruthless Hollywood power player has been worn out from movies like The Player (also a book, and one that What Makes Sammy Run? knocked out of this tournament in the first round) and Swimming With Sharks. Sammy's rags-to-riches rise has been seen in the real-life tales of David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and others clawing their way up from mailrooms. The machinations of Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz, and the like in James Stewart's book Disneywar aren't as openly malevolent but are more fascinating because they're true. Plus, outside of Hollywood, we're all familiar with Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" speech and the price of ambition in investment firms and politics.
But it seems wrong to hold that against Sammy when it did a lot to shape this very stereotype. Plus, I prefer Schulberg's prose, which plows forward, straight and steady, while Waugh's is roundabout and matter-of-fact, in keeping with its more removed take on L.A.
Sammy is also an easier read, as Al continually presses forward, trying to solve the mystery of the title. Whenever I became weary of Al's jabs at Sammy's egocentrism ("And when you ate lunch with Sammy Glick, there was only one thing on the menu, Sammy Glick"), I remembered the fact that he continued to stay friends with Sammy even as he despised everything he stood for. Even for those who stand with the good in the face of the popular, the popular still holds a magnetic appeal.
There's one section in which Al, at this point a screenwriter, addresses that divide in a way that feels particularly relevant to an age when blockbusters and internet clicks take an increasingly greater toll on quality in the creative realm. He's talking (of course) about Sammy:
And then there was his colossal lack of perspective. This was one of his most valuable gifts, for perspective doesn't always pay. It can slow you down. I have sat in my office and said to myself, There are twelve million of your fellow Americans unemployed this morning. Who the hell are you? If that kept me from writing a line all morning it meant I had perspective. Or thinking about how the world was 50 million years ago and all the men who had their chance at living in it and what that had to do with the big pay-off scene in Nick Turner—Boy Detective. That's perspective too. Or just staring up into millions of stars at night till you become molecular. Perspective is a fine thing. It can make you very unhappy. I couldn't imagine Sammy ever unhappy. Or happy either.
Winner: What Makes Sammy Run?
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