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Every 25 years or so, L.A. tends to vent its intractable social and economic inequities as spasms of sensational, explosive violence -- volcanic geysers of underclass malcontent that go by names like Zoot Suit Riots or Watts Riots or Chicano Moratorium March or 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
These quakes originate in tectonic deformations within the city's sprawling psyche whose effects are as catastrophic as those produced by the subterranean geologic faults that threaten to tear apart the very crust beneath our feet. They are also at the center of this week's bout between the two heavyweight protest novels in our tournament to determine the greatest L.A. novel of all time.
In this corner, weighing in at 203 pages is 1945's If He Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes' searing howl of outrage at L.A.'s de facto system of Jim Crow segregation during the wartime years. In the opposite corner, at 258 pages, is 1973's The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Oscar Zeta Acosta's psychedelic and semi-fictional insider's blow-by-blow of L.A.'s radical Chicano political movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
As an additional layer of irony, your ring referee will be neither native Angeleno nor a person of color but rather this suburban, middle-class white boy from the Midwest.
By the time Himes arrived in L.A. in 1941, the 32-year-old short story writer had already been kicked out of Ohio State University and served an eight-year stretch for armed robbery in the medieval hellhole of Columbus' Ohio Penitentiary. But even that didn't prepare him for his three years in Los Angeles, a time that, as he recalled in his autobiography, "hurt me racially as much as any city I have ever known -- much more than I can remember from the South. It was the lynching hypocrisy that hurt me. Black people were treated much the same as they were in an industrial city of the South. ... The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, 'Nigger, ain't we good to you?'"
That wounding hurt was eventually poured into the protagonist of If He Hollers: the young black shipyard supervisor, Bob Jones, who has left college and come west in the wake of Pearl Harbor as part of the migration drawn by the opportunities offered by L.A.'s war-booming defense industry.
Written in the prose of the noir crime thriller -- a style that Himes would later perfect in the Harlem Cycle for which he's best known -- If He Hollers is a harrowing, first-person descent into the purgatory of paranoia and rage that is the birthright of the black man in America. And, as Joseph Heller's later (white) antihero would point out, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."
For Bob Jones, that fear has already reached the point of a palpable and paralyzing panic from the opening pages and his first waking moments:
It came along with consciousness. It came into my head first, somewhere back of my closed eyes, moved slowly underneath my skull to the base of my brain, cold and hollow. It seeped down my spine, into my arms, spread through my groin with an almost sexual torture, settled in my stomach like butterfly wings. For a moment I felt torn all loose inside, shriveled, paralyzed, as if after a while I'd have to get up and die.
What distinguishes Bob from the typical noir hero who becomes detoured by an arbitrary twist of fate in an irrational universe is, of course, that there is nothing arbitrary or irrational about racism. It is as deliberate as Bob's fall is inevitable. The story's fateful femme fatale appears in the unlikely form of the welder Madge, a venomous and sexually-provoking unreconstructed white-trash transplant from Texas klan country (and a kissin' cousin to Harper Lee's malevolent seductress Mayella Ewell).
When Bob's first encounter with Madge's calculated insolence and insubordination results in his outrageously unjust demotion, he plunges into a rabbit hole of suicidal retribution, fueled by a helpless impotence and fanned into a blind, homicidal fury.
As he explains to his fiancée late in the novel:
Please don't tell me I can control my destiny, because I know I can't. In any incident that might come up a white person can use his color on me and turn it into a catastrophe and I won't have any protection, any out, nothing I can do about it but die.
Oscar Acosta first rose to literary prominence as the model for Raoul Duke's acid-eating, 300-pound Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson's counterculture novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And though 28 years separate Cockroach People's Los Angeles from that of If He Hollers, L.A.'s landscape of institutionalized racism not only remains unchanged, Acosta's action is literally set among some of its burnt-out rubble -- the Watts Riots of only four years before.
What has changed dramatically in the intervening years is the postwar American novel. Acosta's taboo-bending, genre-busting Benzedrine prose is as much indebted to Kerouac and Burroughs as it is to the hallucinatory satire of his immediate literary mentor Thompson. A free wheeling mix of fiction, personal memoir and polemic, Cockroach People chronicles the events leading up to the shooting of journalist and Mexican-American martyr Ruben Salazar (pseudonymously called Roland Zanzibar in the story) by an L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy during the Chicano Moratorium March of August 1970.
The novel closely follows Acosta's real-life experiences as the pugnacious and colorful lead attorney for the politically militant Chicano movement in L.A., and offers vivid accounts of his headline-grabbing defenses in and out of the courtroom of the East L.A. 13, the Biltmore Six and the Chicano activists arrested in a 1969 Midnight Mass demonstration outside Wilshire Blvd.'s St. Basil's Catholic Church.
Told through the first-person of the author's equally pugnacious and colorful (if fictional) alter ego, Buffalo Zeta Brown, the novel traces its hero's journey from political ambivalence to deeply radicalized identification with the militant cause to disillusionment and final rejection of a legal system that subverts the cause of racial justice.
"All of them," Buffalo reflects during the novel's climactic trial scene, "every single witness, both prosecution and defense ... is lying. Or not telling the whole truth. The bastards know exactly what we have done and what we have not done. They know for a fact that Corky was not involved in any conspiracy, in any arson, in anything. And they know how and why Zanzibar was killed. But they have all told their own version of things as they would like them to be."
But if that reading of legal relativity remains as trenchantly relevant today as it was in Himes' time, Acosta's novel is also shot through with prejudices that slip through suspiciously unexamined. The most telling are the novel's antique attitudes towards gays and women.
Acosta reserves Buffalo's most homophobic invective for reviled antagonists in both the L.A. Archdiocese and the L.A.P.D. In the case of Police Chief Thomas Reddin, Buffalo turns "to see a tall graying faggot with wet white skin in a black toy soldier's uniform. He twinkles his slice-of-lime eyes with that icy glare only effeminate men can produce."
Elsewhere in the novel are passages brimming with a pre-feminist political incorrectness that is positively Ian Fleming-esque. One of the most damning is the extended, misogynistic adolescent fantasia that Buffalo experiences during a sex-and-drugs tour of Acapulco's red-light district, where he ecstatically observes that "every living thing on the street is an almost-naked broad," including "a gang of fat ugly ... grandmothers ... hustling too."
While Cockroach People continues to be rightly considered a classic, such flaws make for the kind of discordant notes that ultimately handicap the novel, revealing it to be a historically significant but dated time capsule of its day rather than a vitally enduring piece of literature. For the purposes of this contest, they also give Himes' timeless and expertly plotted tale the deciding advantage.
Winner: If He Hollers Let Him Go
Previous matchups, from round one:
*What Makes Sammy Run? vs. The Player
*The Last Tycoon vs. The Loved One
*An Inconvenient Woman vs. Play It as It Lays
*They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Vs. The Day of the Locust
*True Confessions vs. L.A. Confidential
*The Black Echo vs. The Big Sleep
*Double Indemnity vs. Inherent Vice
*The Monkey's Raincoat vs. Devil in a Blue Dress
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
*Oil! vs. The Revolt of the Cockroach People
*If He Hollers Let Him Go vs. Locas
*The Tortilla Curtain vs. The Tattooed Soldier
*White Oleander vs. Lithium for Medea
Lost Souls Region:
*Less Than Zero vs. City of Night
*Empty the Sun vs. Golden Days
*Tropic of Orange vs. A Single Man
*Ask the Dust vs. Post Office
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