Best L.A. Novel Ever: Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? vs. Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go (Final Four)
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
In the middle of If He Hollers Let Him Go, shipyard worker Bob Jones finds himself in a bar in Little Tokyo, "where the spooks and the spills had come in and taken over." Two white soldiers and a white woman walk into the bar, standing out like Anglo thumbs. The woman starts flirting with some black men, the soliders turn red, and one of them says, "Let's get out this nigger joint."
"Where before there had just been race, now there was tension," Jones tells us, and there's rarely a moment in the story, or World War II-era Los Angeles, where this isn't the case. Author Chester Himes explores -- nay, destroys -- the racist attitudes of white Angelenos in his first novel, but that doesn't mean he paints the narrator in gentle strokes. Bob Jones is a man consumed by lust and anger.
Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, on the other hand, is a story of naked Hollywood ambition. Sammy Glick is a striver, a back-stabber, a little man with big dreams. Movies are a collaborative medium, and Glick is especially adept at the Hollywood art of getting his name in the credits. The story of his life is written by Al Manheim, a drama critic who was Glick's senior in New York only to become his smirking, somewhat reluctant tagalong in Los Angeles. We see Sammy run, we see him rise, we see him fall but not entirely.
Both books are great novels. But which is the best Los Angeles novel? Is L.A. a city of amoral ambition or angry lust? It's a cynical question, but this is a place where even the sunniest days are a little noir.
Schulberg's novel skewers the writers and producers of Hollywood, but Himes speaks for minorities and the working class, and despite how L.A. might be viewed by the rest of the country, the Industry is not where most of us earn our livings. We recognize Sammy Glick as an archetype, but there's a little bit of Bob Jones in all of us. As Himes writes:
The huge industrial plants flanking the ribbon of road -- shipyards, refineries, oil wells, steel mills, construction companies -- the thousands of rushing workers, the low-hanging barrage balloons, the closer hard roar of Diesel trucks and the distant drone of patrolling planes, the sharp, pungent smell of exhaust that used to send me driving clear across Ohio on a sunny summer morning, and the snow-capped mountains in the background, like picture post-cards, didn't mean a thing to me. I didn't even see them; all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood's face.
Readers have no choice but to feel Jones' anger, and Angelenos of all stripes can connect with the way the troubles of the city create a myopia that obscures the beauty of the landscape far more than smog ever could. Written in rapid-fire first-person, If He Hollers forces even white folks to become Jones for the narrative's four long days, remembering his dreams in hungover mornings, standing around as he's skipped in line again and again, ducking beams and hammers on the job, listening to lighter-skinned people condescend. We grow with him -- even pausing to look at "the hustle and bustle of moving busy workers, trucks, plate lifts, yard cranes, electric mules, the blue flashes of arc welders, brighter than the noonday sun" -- only to fall down and get beat in the end.
The Winner: If He Hollers Let Him Go
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