Best L.A. Novel Ever: Upton Sinclair's Oil! vs. Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Round 1
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:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
Here are some things Upton Sinclair's Oil! has the scoop on: Hollywood fad diets; illicit payments to players on the USC football team; phony miracles fabricated by a widely broadcast preacher. There's a Republican Presidential nominee from Massachusetts of whom Sinclair writes, "One thing, and one only, the business men expected of him, to cut down their income taxes; in everything else he would be a cipher."
The book was published in 1927.
Readers approaching it from Paul Thomas Anderson's film adaptation, There Will Be Blood, will be acquainted with the first third, wherein an independent oilman and his devoted son strike black gold on land they've hustled from a family of zealots. From there, the son, a nouveau riche princeling nicknamed Bunny, is constantly on the receiving end of initiations both sexual and political, and Sinclair's project reveals itself to be a cultural history of American socialism in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Sinclair was a prude, famous in his day for arguing sex must not be had for pleasure. Yet his women characters consistently elicit his deepest and most elegant writing. The parade of Bunny's typically unconsummated fixations includes a proto-feminist, a prim heiress, a louche starlet, a plaintive farmer's daughter and an indefatigable revolutionary -- each of them more credibly alive than any male character in the book. Bunny eventually comes to love a woman with "sunset in her cheeks, and sunrise in her spirit." The poetry of that description yields to the woman's frank assurance she will have a few kids and become fat.
Kaleidoscope of women aside, the book is less a novel -- fully realized characters, causally interlinked sequence of events, you know the drill -- than a set of illustrations of everything Sinclair was thinking about in the early-to-mid-1920s. Only some of that was California-specific, and less still had much to do with Los Angeles. Despite occasional flashes of uncanny familiarity...
They drove to a cafeteria, an invention where California fish and California fruits and California salads are spread out before the eyes in such profusion as to trouble a nineteen year old Juno already struggling to "reduce."
...the book's setting is really the floating world of ideological fellow-travelers Sinclair joined in socialist fantasia. A lot of action takes place on boats to Europe. At one point, the narrator skewers a girl's romantic illusions thusly:
This was her crooning song, wrapped in his arms, there under the spring-time moon, which is the same in California as everywhere else in the world.
I beg to differ.
Like Oil!, Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People is an impassioned piece of anti-capitalist agitprop, and a formidable work of lightly fictionalized reportage. Unlike Oil!, it is also, and primarily, a rancid attempt at self-canonization. The first-person pronoun can be over-indulged, but how refreshing it was to see again after 500 pages of Sinclair's exemplary typologies. "I will write the greatest books ever written," Acosta resolves early in Revolt. "I will save the world. I will show the world what is what and who the fuck is who. Me in particular."
Acosta became a lawyer in San Francisco at age 31. At age 33, after meeting Hunter S. Thompson, who would immortalize him as "Samoan attorney" Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he moved to East L.A. and wreaked two years of serious hell as lightning rod and figurehead of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. At age 35 he retired from public life to write two seething, self-enchanted, remarkable books -- The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo precedes Revolt, and functions like a superhero origin story. And at 39 he was gone, presumed dead after vanishing near Mazatlan.
The book explains "Cockroach people" as the dispossessed, "the little beasts everyone steps on." Turning protest into guerrilla theater and legal defense into performance art, Acosta's revolt initially holds to a three-beat measure of arrest, acquittal, party, then repeat. Notwithstanding some rhetorical poses toward homosexuals, women, and various racial minorities that are way, way more regressive than Sinclair's 50 years earlier, Revolt asserts the solidarity of all oppressed people with palpable empathy. Tooner Flats, the East L.A. barrio the novel orbits, is Vietnam:
Cops marching forward with gas masks down the middle of the debris. An ordinary day in Saigon, Haiphong, Quang Tri and Tooner Flats.
It is also Watts:
The faded buildings are covered with slogans and graffiti the same.
It is also breathtakingly itself...
...a neighborhood of shacks and clotheslines and dirty back yards. At every other corner, street lights hang high on telephone poles and cast dim yellow glows. Skinny dogs and wormy cats sniff garbage cans in the alleys.
The Brown Buffalo beats the Bunny in this showdown because of sentences like those -- specific and sensory and attentive. Revolt's also got a climactic courtroom scene (just like in the movies!), a harrowing autopsy sequence that balled my heart into a fist, and, because it was the end of the '60s, a sex scene in purple lamplight on shag carpet under a Sgt. Pepper poster.
Revolt is a great Los Angeles novel, rich in both description and self-invention. Late in its pages, Acosta tosses off a line that, with its riddling self-contradiction and ruthless earnest, might just be the best L.A. motto I've seen anywhere.
...what would happen if I ever got serious?
I am serious.
Winner: The Revolt of the Cockroach People