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:
Two stream-of-consciousness, first-person narratives told by lost young men, John Rechy's City of Night (1963) and Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero (1985), face off today. Both books give insight into the underbelly of Los Angeles, at very different times and in very different socio-economic stratospheres. One leaves us with a new compassion, the other leaves us horrified and bereft.
In City of Night, an unnamed narrator takes us on a journey around the country and into the world of male hustling, in Times Square in New York, Pershing Square in downtown L.A. and the French Quarter in New Orleans. This is a book born very much of its time, where the subject matter of life on the streets, gay sex and drug use (to a lesser degree) were taboo, and the act of writing about them alone was enough for huge controversy.
City of Night's language is often flowery and its narrator is self conscious to the point of (admitted, oft-repeated) extreme narcissism. But its triumph is in its sketches of characters throughout the world of hustling and the streets.
Absorbing and compassionate portrayals of fellow street hustlers, drag queens born into a world with no place for their dreams or identities outside of the streets, and gay men on all levels of society who the narrator comes in contact with gave a voice and humanity to portions of society that were shunned and ignored. A lonely and dying, bedridden “Professor” in New York pays the narrator to sit by him and listen as he tells about his loves, his “angels,” before sex. An educated drag queen in L.A., Miss Destiny, is a heartbreaking profile of someone with nowhere in the world to fit in except the streets she despises. All the while, we learn the complex and nuanced sexual and social structure of a world clouded in shame and mystery: the 1950s gay underground.
The failing of this book, by modern standards, is that there is very little plot. The book doesn't really build to anything — it is simply an accounting of the places and people a young street hustler came to know over the course of a few years and the internal struggle he faces, which is never resolved.
Likewise, Less Than Zero is bereft of much plot. A college student, Clay, comes home to L.A. for Christmas break from a New England school. He plunges back into the world of rich kid L.A. life, parties and copious amounts of drugs and a world that reveals its truly sinister side slowly. At first the book seems like a complete waste, pages and pages of emotionless descriptions of people and places and drugs that all seem to run together. He sleeps with men and women, he can't seem to tell his sisters apart, his friends are all in various states of sex- and drug-addled decline but set against the vapid opulence of L.A.'s upper class. This book numbs you into barely caring and then punches you in the gut with a series of increasingly disturbing occurrences: a stomach-turning, sexually violent snuff film; the prostitution of a male childhood friend; a decomposing dead body; a graphic description of a 12-year-old female sex slave held in a friend's apartment.
The brilliance in this novel is the way Easton Ellis numbs you to this world before breaking you with its viciousness, very much like its narrator. It's more vapid, more nihilistic and more disturbing than you imagine it could be, and you walk away changed by it.
So, while City of Night probably changed the world more than Less Than Zero did, for this competition Less Than Zero comes out on top. It is far more an L.A. novel through and through, and while it is set in the 80s with 80s drugs and 80s style, the sinister side of L.A. it reveals is timeless, recognizable today and likely forever. City of Night does a better job of giving us whole characters, and making us understand and empathize with people who were extreme outsiders at the time. But Less Than Zero, as a complete work, more successfully and devastatingly accomplishes its goals as a work of art.
Winner: Less Than Zero