In 1920, Los Angeles was still something of a backwater -- smaller than the mighty Rust Belt cities of Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland; smaller, too, than Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But by 1930, L.A. had become a destination; with a population of 1.2 million, it passed Cleveland and became the first West Coast city to make the nation's top five, a position from which it never looked back.
And so both of these slim Depression-era novels -- Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust -- are set at a point in L.A.'s history where everyone here was just off the proverbial boat from somewhere else. Some came for the movie industry. Some came to retire (or, as West puts it in his startlingly incisive way, to die). Some simply came to escape their lives.
Many, these books suggest, failed to find what they were looking for.
And so both books cast a critical eye on Los Angeles. In both, people come here to make it big, to change their lives. In both, L.A. -- and show biz -- lets them down.
There's another key similarity: In both novels, the main character is a man locked in struggle with a no-good dame. In They Shoot Horses, the ever-optimistic Robert finds himself competing in a dance marathon at the Santa Monica Pier with Gloria, to whom he's initially attracted, but he's soon worn down by her relentlessly negativity. In The Day of the Locust, Tod spends much of his time fantasizing about either making love to, or raping, the conniving Fay.
Both women are two-bit actresses toiling as extras, though sometimes it's a struggle even to do that. Hollywood isn't exactly working out for either Gloria or Fay. And so Fay resorts to prostitution, then shamelessly uses a buffoon from Iowa, cock-teasing her way to room and board; Gloria struggles through the dance marathon, an option roughly equivalent today to the more humiliating forms of reality TV.
But there's one huge difference here, and it's the reason one novel is merely good but the other rises to greatness. In They Shoot Horses, McCoy feels sorry for his characters, who are condemned to participate in the marathon just to earn their daily bread. The sea pounds beneath them, the dance goes on and on, and there is no escape but death. It's emblematic of this book that the one character who might help Robert is taken out by a stray bullet -- our man is, simply, doomed. Gloria is an impossible bitch; the marathon is rigged and exploitative; there's no way he'll ever fulfill his dream of making it as a Hollywood director.
In The Day of the Locust, West doesn't really like anyone, but boy is he having fun. The novel is bleak, but it's such blisteringly sharp satire that you can't help but laugh out loud. No one escapes West's powers of observation: greedy women, needy old men, stage mothers, Midwestern retirees, cuckolds, religion, movie fans, prostitutes, horny young men, pretentious movie studios, child actors, California architecture -- everything gets exposed.
They Shoot Horses is harrowing, but it's The Day of the Locust that grabs you by the lapels and won't let go. The world it inhabits is far uglier than one where the deck is stacked against our Hollywood dreams -- the problem isn't our circumstances, but our very souls.
All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?
Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don't know what to do with their time. They haven't the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a "holocaust of flame," as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.
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In They Don't Shoot Horses, there are no less than six gunshots, two brutal beatings and one very intentional murder, which frames the whole book in flashback. It's a heavy book, and a sad one.
But it's The Day of the Locust that proves a far more stinging indictment of Hollywood and the transplants who populate it. A razor-sharp knife can do far more damage than a sledgehammer; this one cuts its subjects, and all of L.A., right to the bone.
WINNER: The Day of the Locust