Mid-century Los Angeles was a corrupting place. Prohibition (1920-1933) had made mafia bosses millionaires and an oil boom had brought all sorts of chancers to the quickly growing city. Coupled with people fleeing the Great Depression to seek their dreams in the movie business, you have a world of rapid rises and dramatic falls.
Two writers drawn into this web of desperation and deceit were Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Nathanael West (1903-1940). The two men led quite similar lives. Both novelists had parents who were first-generation immigrants to the states: Chandler’s mother came from Ireland while West’s parents were Lithuanian. Both men moved to LA from other large cities: Chandler grew up in Chicago and London, while West was a New Yorker. Each man spent their younger years in Paris before taking up relatively humdrum occupations. Chandler worked as an oilman. West managed a small hotel. Eventually, their skill with the pen brought them to Hollywood, where they became successful screenwriters.
Cultural mores meant that the cinema of the time was a neutered beast where little of real life could be shown. Pumped out on a production line, the movie business would become the demise of many talented authors as their work was rewritten out of all recognition. To see LA as it really was, we have to turn to their novels.
West’s classic is The Day of the Locust (1939). It is a dark, ambitious book. With its obsessive strangers living on the outskirts of society, it feels like a movie by David Lynch. As with Lynch’s films, women are the prime victim of much of the threat in the novel. The treatment of Faye Greener, an ambitious young starlet, is very disturbing indeed, especially when she moves in with a weird loner called Homer Simpson (yes, the inspiration for The Simpsons character).
Amidst the darkness, there is some superb prose:
But the going was heavy and the stones and sand moved under his feet. He fell prone with his face in a clump of wild mustard that smelled of the rain and the sun, clean, fresh and sharp. He rolled over on his back and stared up at the sky. The violent exercise had driven most of the heat out of his blood, but enough remained to make him tingle pleasantly.
Women also get a hard ride in Chandler’s stories featuring private eye Philip Marlowe. Like Faye Greener, they are usually femme fatales. However, the women that Marlowe encounters are rich, dangerous and occasionally murderous.
There is one other great threat in Chandler’s world: alcohol. Other than Marlowe, Chandler’s greatest creation is the alcoholic Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye (1953). A great lover of gimlets, Lennox becomes Marlowe’s drinking partner, even though Marlowe is not averse to giving him advice on how to go teetotal:
“It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lot of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.”
“That wouldn’t be much of a change,” he said.
One other area of similarity is in their indifference to plotting. Perhaps in reaction to the strictures and rules of screenwriting, Chandler’s novels are peppered with dubious script devices. In The High Window, the entire plot revolves around the coincidence that a certain character has a camera ready at a certain time and in a certain place and, in the blink of an eye, took a compromising photograph. It’s utterly unbelievable but as it’s the pay-off to a beautifully written novel, the reader gives a shrug of the shoulders and moves on.
West is even more free-wheeling in The Day of the Locust. It’s a complex novel with multiple protagonists, no true plot, and a surreal, nebulous conclusion. By the end of the book, it’s not even clear why it is called The Day of the Locust at all (most people believe it’s a Biblical allusion).
Chandler and West are two writers from similar worlds whose books have stood the test of time. Reading them together is a great way of getting a peek at the real LA, the one that lay behind the silver screen.