And the Best L.A. Novel Ever Is...
Designed by Brian Guillian Click on the image to see the full tournament brackets
L.A. Weekly has been holding a tournament to find the best L.A. novel ever, featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups. For further reading:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Begins
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
*18 L.A. Literary Figures Pick Their Favorite L.A. Novels
*Why Has the Greatest Hollywood Novel Never Been Made Into a Hollywood Movie?
The greatest L.A. novel of all time starts with a bad dream. Bob Jones, a black man who works at the San Pedro shipyards during World War II, is tossing and turning in that half-suspended hour right before his alarm goes off.
He wakes up afraid.
"Every day now I'd been waking up that way," he tells the reader, "ever since the war began. And since I'd been made a leaderman out at the Atlas Shipyard it was really getting to me. Maybe I'd been scared all my life, but I didn't know about it until after Pearl Harbor. When I came out to Los Angeles in the fall of '41, I felt fine about everything."
Jones' cockiness faded when he realized that, even in Los Angeles, the color of his skin mattered far more than he'd hoped. He'd been turned down for jobs before, he explains, back in Cleveland. But in L.A. it was somehow worse. L.A. was supposed to be better. And yet when he'd asked for work, "Most of 'em didn't say they wouldn't hire me," he relates. "They just looked so goddamned startled that I'd even asked. As if some friendly dog had come through the door and said, 'I can talk.' It shook me."
Then, Jones continues, the government rounded up the Japanese and confined them to internment camps: "It was thinking about if they ever did that to me, Robert Jones, Mrs. Jones' dark son, that started me to getting scared."
It's a gripping first few pages -- made even more startling by the fact that the book it begins, Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go, was published in 1945. The Good War had only just been won, yet here was someone who had no interest in raising a glass to the victors, instead intent on pointing out the dark side of that victory. In November 1945, the Saturday Review called Himes' novel "the bitterest [book] we have come across in a long time."
Both of the books that made the final round of the tournament are bitter -- bitter about life, bitter about Los Angeles. Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero is a kiss-off to L.A.'s better neighborhoods, a college student's angry rejection of the shallow values of his parents and friends. It's a surprisingly compelling read: If you haven't read it since the '80s and remember it only as an artifact of its time, you'll find yourself marveling at how contemporary it feels, at how (until the over-the-top melodrama of the final few chapters) Ellis' observations still seem spot-on nearly 30 years after its publication.
But If He Hollers Let Him Go is a superior novel because its anger is so much more warranted. Reviewers in the '40s may have been struck by its bitterness, but, reading it today, you will be struck mainly by its restraint in the face of circumstances that we now would judge untenable.
If Less Than Zero's protagonist wants to get away from the depravity and drug abuse of his high school friends, he need only return to his college back East. For If He Hollers' Bob Jones -- and for any black man in the 1940s -- there is no escape.
L.A. was supposed to be the escape. Then it turned out to be just as bad as anywhere else.
At its core, the story of Los Angeles is a story of immigration. How could it be otherwise? The 20th century saw the city grow from just 102,000 souls in 1900 (one-third the size of Bob Jones' hometown, Cleveland) to 3.7 million in 2000 (nearly 10 times bigger than Cleveland, and second only to New York). No other city in the country came close to such dramatic growth.
But the waves of outsiders who moved here weren't always welcome. For the Chinese in the 1850s, the African-Americans who came to work in the shipyards during World War II, the Koreans and Mexicans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans who've made up more recent waves of migration, L.A. has been a challenge. People came here to pursue their version of the California dream -- and more often than not were greeted with hostility.
And so it is in If He Hollers. The white men may be mostly overseas, but white women, who finally have their chance for gainful employment, are threatened by black interlopers. Meanwhile, L.A.'s black community worries that it is being marginalized by an influx of less-refined Southerners.
The black characters in If He Hollers constantly tell themselves that they are not in the Deep South. But the minute Jones lets down his guard, he's reminded that he might as well be. A co-worker calls him a racial slur and faces no punishment. The cops arrest him the minute he crosses the border into Santa Monica and tell him to "get back where you belong and stay there." A fancy downtown restaurant grudgingly serves him and a date, only to deliver with the bill an admonition never to come back. Only for a masochist would this life be a dream.
Jones is surrounded by people who tell him to suck it up, to be patient. One of them is his girlfriend's mother, a light-skinned black woman married to a prominent physician. She's horrified by his attitude. "White people are trying so hard to help us," she tells him. "We've got to earn our equality. ... We must be patient, we must make progress ... "
"Maybe the white folks can run faster than we can," he responds. "Then what do we do?" He's a young man in a hurry, and who can blame him? Good-looking, smart, with a bit of college -- if he were white, he'd have the world on a string. It galls him that it's all right there in L.A.: so close and yet out of reach.
"What happens to a dream deferred?" Langston Hughes asked. Angelenos know the answer is, in fact, the one foreshadowed by Hughes' poem: It explodes.
The shrapnel from that explosion can't be controlled. The irony is that its victims typically are other people on the margins, people with dreams of their own. Twenty years ago in South L.A., the shrapnel injured not the people who kept black Angelenos down but the wave of immigrants who'd followed them, Koreans wanting (just as Bob Jones wanted) the good life. More recently, Latino street gangs intent on establishing their turf in Compton have targeted the people standing in their way: the blacks.
As Jones sees his dreams dashed, he finds himself fixating on someone who's barely making it work in L.A. -- a transplant from Texas, a single woman past her prime, living on the margins. He can't strike back at the cops who humiliate him or the bosses who refuse to stand up for him, but she's alone in a lousy apartment on the edge of town. She's a much easier target.
Chester Himes was not an L.A. writer. Nor was he a New York writer -- even though he's mostly famous today for his series of Harlem detective novels, which earned him the sobriquet "the black Raymond Chandler."
Like the protagonist in his blistering first novel, Himes was raised mostly in Cleveland. After a stint in the penitentiary for armed robbery, he moved to L.A. during World War II. Instead of the shipyards, he worked in the Hollywood studios -- only to be fired when Jack Warner supposedly announced, "I don't want no niggers on this lot." And so he escaped, moving to Paris in 1953 and finding literary acclaim there.
You would never call Himes the greatest L.A. novelist of all time. (Save that, perhaps, for Chandler.) He came, he grew disgusted and he left. What remains is the book he left behind -- a blistering, brilliant and, yes, bitter book that captures the rage and fear of everyone who has tried to make it in this town and found it wanting.
It isn't everyone's story. You could argue that many young Angelenos have much more in common with the spoiled characters in Less Than Zero. You could argue, too, that just as L.A. is 72 suburbs in search of a city, it's 32 really good novels in search of a truly great one. Certainly, this tournament was an imperfect process; most of us who worked on it would quarrel with a choice or two made along the way (and maybe even second-guess some choices of our own).
Yet this is a book you can't forget. Spend a few nights with If He Hollers Let Him Go and you'll find yourself seeing the world through Bob Jones' eyes. You'll feel the fear of being a black man in the 1940s. You'll find your dread growing, hoping against hope he'll refrain from violence, only to realize it doesn't even matter whether he can hold it together -- the city is still going to turn on him.
You may never look at Los Angeles the same way again.
Winner: If He Hollers Let Him Go
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