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 check out:
Bob Jones, the shipyard worker at the center of Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go, has a mind that runs a million miles a minute. It goes so fast and veers off on so many detours that it takes the first 68 pages of If He Hollers… to get through one day of his life, and you still feel you're barely keeping up.
With Lucia, the tough, strategic gangster's girlfriend who drives Yxta Maya Murray's novel Locas, it's the opposite. She's taught herself to have razor sharp focus and not dwell on what she can't control. You're not sure if it will save or destroy her, but you always know what she's after.
Himes, whose grandfather had been a slave and who moved to L.A. from Cleveland, like his title character, only to find racism in this city stuck to him like a “disease I couldn't shake,” published If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945. Murray published Locas just over fifty years later, in 1997. The two books face off in the Rebels and Outcasts category of our tournament and, given that five-decade gap between them, it's unsettling that they have the similarities they do.
Both are set in overtly segregated worlds, where characters have too few options. “When I got here,” Bob Jones says of L.A. a few pages into If He Hollers…, “the only job a Negro could get was service in the white folks' kitchens. But it wasn't that so much. It was the look on people's faces…As if some friendly dog had come in through the door and said 'I can talk.'” In Locas, set in 1980s and early '90s Echo Park, “the Mexicans” initially make “our money by pumping [white families'] gas and bussing their tables and cleaning up after them with our hair wrapped up to keep cool,” then later when the white people stop owning Echo Park, it starts to seem the only real option for the women is house cleaning, whoring or depending wholly on a man. Neither Bob nor Lucia can stomach settling for the status quo, though they approach their escapes differently.
It's Bob's distractedness and Lucia's single-mindedness that define the thrust and mood of Himes' and Murray's novels, which means this round is really about figuring out which narrative approach gives the more searing picture of a rebel youth dodging the odds in racially divided L.A.
Locas begins in the voice of Cecilia, the little sister of Manny, the boy who starts the Lobos gang in Echo Park. Cecilia sets the stage — how the Bloods and Crips inspired Manny, but money inspired him more, how his mother prays frantically that he'll be good — and then introduces us to Lucia. Cecilia's first-person narratives will recur throughout, but even when Cecilia's trying to have a baby with her brother's second in command, getting tangled up with the girlfriend of a rival gang leader or coming to Jesus, Lucia's in control.
Manny finds Lucia when she's “nothing but a cherry thinking love was the biggest thing,” then puts her up in an apartment. The first time Manny is arrested, when he screams at the cops like “a looneytunes” and Lucia stays quiet nearby because she knows “where it's at,” it strikes her she might have what it takes to be a boss herself. From then on, Locas is the story of Lucia's steady climb to become indispensable to Manny, build her gang of Fire Girls and then unseat Manny altogether. Her observations never dig deep: “She wasn't no candy-hearted princess” she says of one her first girl-gang recruits, and she's gotten her whole point across.
“I'm not a woman who likes the sea, with it's shifty tide and secret storms,” Lucia says, two-thirds into Locas. “I like dry land…Something you can grip on to.” She never ventures far from Echo Park, and though she eventually has blood on her hands and cops at her back, she doesn't let herself dream of anything bigger or scarier than holding her turf.
All Chester Himes' Bob Jones does is dream of things that are bigger and scarier, and his L.A. is gaping, even if he feels unwelcome in most of it. He wakes up on the book's second page dreaming that he's asked two big white men for a job and they're laughing because he doesn't have the right tools.
By mid-morning that same day he's raced in his '42 Buick from downtown to the harbor, where he works in a yard as the only black leaderman of a black crew. He's picked up three other guys on the way, struggled to find parking and had quite a few unpleasant run-ins. “The white folk sure had brought their white to work with them this morning,” he says to himself. By early afternoon, he's tried to get a blond female tacker to do some work for him that everyone else refuses to do and called her a “cracker bitch” when she says she won't work with “no nigger.” He's gotten demoted because the lady tacker, Madge, reported his cursing her out. Then he's gotten knocked out while playing dice at lunch by a white guy, a copper worker, who also called him “nigger.”
Throughout the book, Bob will plan to kill the copper worker who insulted him — “he'd been elected” — and also entertain vengeance fantasies against Madge. He'll go to both their houses, in between trips to fancy restaurants and drives through Santa Monica with his intellectual, could-pass-for-white girlfriend, wondering if he should rape Madge. “After that I could go and sit in the gas chambers at San Quentin and laugh,” he says. “Because it was the funniest goddamn thing that had ever happened. A black son of a bitch destroying himself because of a no-good white slut…It was so funny because it didn't make sense.”
He won't actually do much of what he imagines, though his fantasy life keeps overlapping his real one, his mind keeps changing and he keeps going from one hostile neighborhood to another. That's why If He Hollers… wins this round: because it sprints around in that gripplingly irrational way.
Even if Locas is as persuasive and true-sounding as a smart documentary, Murray keeps her novel as tight as her main character keeps her mind, while Himes' novel is as unweildy as this city is.
WINNER: If He Hollers Let Him Go