In the middle of If He Hollers Let Him Go, shipyard worker Bob Jones finds himself in a bar in Little Tokyo, "where the spooks and the spills had come in and taken over." Two white soldiers and a white woman walk into the bar, standing out like Anglo thumbs. The woman starts flirting with some black men, the soliders turn red, and one of them says, "Let's get out this nigger joint."
"Where before there had just been race, now there was tension," Jones tells us, and there's rarely a moment in the story, or World War II-era Los Angeles, where this isn't the case. Author Chester Himes explores -- nay, destroys -- the racist attitudes of white Angelenos in his first novel, but that doesn't mean he paints the narrator in gentle strokes. Bob Jones is a man consumed by lust and anger.
Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of 15 books, including the legendary memoir Always Running.
I know, I know; Ask the Dust by John Fante will inevitably show up on any L.A. writer's list of best books. For me, here's why: The book loomed large as I visited in the late 1970s the downtown library, one of my favorite haunts since my days as a homeless, drug-addled teen. The poetry in the lines drew me in but more so the story of this beaten-down, Italian-American writer, lost in the city's caverns of the poor; hateful toward Mexicans yet loving them; full of racist rage, largely due to his own loss of deep roots and identity. The vulnerability of a white person in cross-cultural L.A. was refreshing to me. Not an idealized hero or villain but a perpetually dreaming, emotionally crippled and potentially vital artist of the alcoves. Kinda like me.
Here are two disparate novels that have little in common stylistically or thematically apart from the fact that they're both set in Los Angeles and often cast a jaundiced and jaded eye at humanity in general, and Angelenos in particular. Both writers vaguely hint that there might be some hope for mankind, but most of their characters choose not to -- or are unable to -- do the right thing.
James Ellroy isn't interested in telling a simple detective story in L.A. Confidential. Instead, the novelist has bigger things on his mind, using the city's notorious history of political corruption in the 1950s to give heft to a plot that ties together the not-necessarily-separate worlds of the police, organized crime, politicians and tabloid journalists. Whereas a writer like Raymond Chandler used rich, evocative descriptions to palpably bring to life recognizable locations populated by a small group of flawed but generally human protagonists, Ellroy takes aim at a wider number of characters with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast.
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.
If you're looking for sparse depictions of lost men wandering through their own spiritual crises with Los Angeles as the backdrop, then I've got a couple of books for you. Bret Easton Ellis' Less than Zero and Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man are starkly set apart by their eras and styles, but the basic premise, and the use of L.A. as setting and symbol for psychological desperation and emptiness, makes them far more similar than would appear at first glance.
A Single Man gives us one day in the life of George, a middle-aged British university professor living in Santa Monica who has recently lost his partner, Jim. The book, published in 1964, provides an incredibly well-rendered inner life, one tortured by grief and the burden of a gay protagonist who longs for acceptance, but also retribution. Told in a clipped, incredibly intimate present-tense third person, George's vanity and ego are laid bare, and the inner dialogue rings absolutely true. It's a book about aging and mourning, loneliness and the tragic futility of human connection. What I'm not sure it's about is Los Angeles.
If you can get off the freeways, and learn to navigate Los Angeles via surface streets, then you'll start to understand this city. Veteran Angelinos tell newcomers this, the assumption being that understanding Los Angeles leads to liking it.
Both Bob Jones from Chester Himes' 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go and Antonio Bernal from Hector Tobar's 1998 novel The Tattooed Soldier navigate the city via surface streets and do so deftly. Bob does because most freeways didn't yet exist when Himes wrote If He Hollers. Antonio does because he's homeless and carless in and around downtown and Westlake. But neither protagonist from these two novels, facing off in Round Three of our Best L.A. Novel tournament, likes Los Angeles any more for it.
Both men come to the city hoping for a new start. Instead they find themselves in a confusing place full of frustrating injustice that they can't escape, even as they veer from one neighborhood to another.
The noir finals! There are few things L.A. does better than stylishly dark crime stories full of desperate characters in bleak settings. We invented film noir, even if it took a French critic to provide its name. And before that were the books that inspired the movies -- the tautly written paperbacks featuring bad dames and the violent men who lusted for them. True, L.A. can't lay claim to the man who first perfected the hardboiled detective, Dashiell Hammett, but the writers he inspired, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, surpassed the master. And they were both L.A. writers through and through.
Which is why, to this reader, the final matchup in our Noir category is a bit of a disappointment. How can we be seeking the best noir L.A. novel ever without Raymond Chandler in the running?
The battle between Carolyn See's Golden Days and Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man pits Topanga Canyon against Santa Monica, science fiction against realism and feminism against gay rights.
In crisp, gripping prose, Isherwood chronicles a day in the life of George, a gay professor trying to move on after the death of his long-time partner, Jim. Published seven years before Stonewall, the book's repudiation of gay stereotypes was nothing short of revolutionary.
See's novel, set in a dystopian version of the 1980's, stars Edith Langley, or Edie, who escaped two bad marriages, pulled herself up the socioeconomic ladder and sneers at "helpless" wives who are unable "to be anything more than ornaments ever." Yet Edie only manages to achieve her dream job -- president of the Third Women's Bank of Santa Monica -- because the man she's sleeping with offers it to her. And once she's got the position? "I learned to say nothing in meetings, letting my earrings speak for me."
The category in this bracket of our Great L.A. Novel challenge is "Hollywood novel." And that category is practically defined by these second-round contenders, What Makes Sammy Run? and Day of the Locust.
While Day of the Locust is set in Hollywood, and does comment on the horrors and absurdities of showbiz -- especially in its final, terrifying scene -- it's really not about Hollywood. It's about the "great mass of inland Americans," as the back-cover copy of my edition calls them, who went West in search of the good life. Author Nathanael West touches on Hollywood, but these people are his true subject.
What Makes Sammy Run?, on the other hand, is the ur Hollywood novel. Author Budd Schulberg's keen observations of the studio business came at first-hand: He was the son of motion picture executive B.P. Schulberg and he grew up in and around the industry. The titular Sammy Glick rises from lowly New York City newspaper copy boy to midlevel Hollywood studio exec by schmoozing and backstabbing, stealing ideas and passing them off as his own, and setting the template for showbiz climbers to this day.
Writing about Charles Bukowski's Post Office in the first round of this tournament, I noted that pitting it against John Fante's Ask the Dust was somewhat unfair when taking into account that Bukowski's novel was heavily influenced by Fante's. (Bukowski even penned a foreword to Ask the Dust, writing at one point that "Fante was my god.") The same would appear to be true of Less Than Zero: though there isn't as direct a correlation, Bret Easton Ellis did go on to use the opening paragraph of Fante's seminal novel as the epigraph to his short story collection The Informers some ten years later. It thus comes as little surprise that his precocious debut has a good deal in common with Fante's bittersweet masterwork.