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:
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.
Bob, a black shipyard worker with some college education, moves to Los Angeles from Cleveland to find work in 1941, just after the Pearl Harbor attack. Cleveland certainly hadn't been “land of the free or home of the brave either” but in Los Angeles, he feels shook up and ignored in a different way. It isn't that white people reject him outright; it's that they look at him like “some friendly dog had come through the door and said, 'I can talk.'” He gets to where the only place he feels “safe was in bed asleep.”
“Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I've ever been in,” says Bob, early on in If He Hollers. He has taken the afternoon off after being demoted at the shipyard, because a female tacker named Madge had told him she wouldn't “work with no nigger.” He had responded without really thinking about consequences, “Screw you then, you cracker bitch!” Now he is driving toward downtown with two white sailors who need a lift beside him in his Buick Roadmaster, talking about L.A.'s phoniness.
Antonio, a former literature student, flees his home in San Cristobal, Guatemala, deep in pain after his politically engaged wife and young son are assassinated by military “Jaguars,” death squads charged with annihilating any threats to the regime. He becomes a busboy when he gets to Los Angele, and finds that L.A. “made you less than you were.”
For him, the city is full of a sick, false hope. In Guatemala, the “sunsets were ordinary and predictable.” In Los Angeles, where he's evicted from his apartment as the novel begins and then lives nomadically with a group of homeless men as it continues, the evening sky is dramatically colored, but, as someone once told him, this color results from the pollution: “Even the beautiful sunsets were man-made.”
Revenge fantasies drive both novels. Bob wants revenge, in some shape or form, against a lot of people: Madge, for getting him demoted; his lighter-skinned girlfriend, Alice, for being able to “make the grade” in a white world and for wanting him to be things he's not sure he wants to be; his supervisors for being too weak to rock the boat and still having power over him. But he fixates most on one man: a blond copper-shop worker he plays craps with right after his demotion. The blond boy had punched unsuspecting Bob in the face after the game got heated, saying, “I'll cool that nigger.”
Soon, Bob's sneaking up on the man at work, following him home to Huntington Park, planning first to stab him, then to shoot him. But there's no rush: “I could save him up,” Bob says, “just like the white folk had been saving me up for all these years. … As long as I knew I was going to kill him nothing could bother me. They could beat my head to a bloody pulp and kick my guts through my spine. But they couldn't hurt me. … I had a peckerwood's life in the palm of my hand and that made all the difference.”
Antonio wants revenge against only one person: the soldier with the Jaguar tattoo who killed his wife and son. He sees this soldier in MacArthur Park, recognizing him because of the tattoo, on his forearm. Longoria is the soldier's name, and Tobar tells parts of the story from his perspective, flashing back to Longoria's past as he does Antonio's, so we start to see how and why both men ended up where they are. Antonio, like Bob, tracks his enemy.
But because Tobar writes with flashbacks, calm, controlled exposition and unambiguous dialogue — “That's some tough shit you're dealing with,” Frank tells Antonio — The Tattooed Sailor feels less desperate than it should. Even at the end, after the post-Rodney King riots spread through the city and Antonio's revenge plot gets messy, Antonio still manages to comfort himself almost too soundly, imagining his dead wife: “If she were alive, Elena would put her arms around Antonio and kiss him and say, 'Of course, you're confused my love, you always were.'”
Himes, in contrast, sends Bob reeling full force ahead through and around the real Los Angeles — to the shipyards, to the Santa Monica beach, to the home of the white man he wants to kill — and he races through thoughts just as forcefully. There are no flashbacks, and no dialogue that puts a neat frame around things. Instead of “That's tough shit you're dealing with,” Bob's friends talk at each other instead of to him: “Bob sho ain't got his mind on driving this morning.” Instead of comforting flashbacks, Bob flashes back to things he's never experienced but dreads all the same: “I felt pressed … helpless as any Negro share-cropper facing a white mob in Georgia.”
Near the end of If He Hollers, Bob's on the run, trying to get out of California because he's afraid the phony L.A. justice system will force him to pay for something he didn't do, but he can't get out, because he has no gas, he has no money and he's not thinking as straight as he thinks he is. So he drives around downtown L.A. in the dark with the gas gauge on empty, waiting to get caught. The narrative feels as unpredictable and unsafe as Bob's predicaments.
Winner: If He Hollers Let Him Go
Previous matchups, from round one:
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
Lost Souls Region: