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Jack Smith

Could a Southern Californian stay indoors and write while the sun shines? A novel concept, but it would never work

January 13, 1986|Jack Smith

"Is it because of the splendid California weather," asks Dan Brennan, "that California has produced only two major novelists--Steinbeck and Jack London?"

For one thing, London was from Oakland, not Southern California, and only Southern California has the kind of weather that is supposed to demoralize and degenerate novelists.

Steinbeck was not a Southern Californian, either. He wrote about the central valleys and coastal towns that he knew so well.

And Steinbeck's best book, according to most critics, was "The Grapes of Wrath," which was about the misery of impoverished migrants who flocked to the San Joaquin Valley to escape the dust bowls of the Depression.

To be great, it seems, a novelist has to write about the misery of the neighborhood he grew up in and knows. Thus, Sinclair Lewis scored with "Main Street," a novel about a young wife's attempt to change the philistine life of a small town in the Middle West. "Babbitt," similarly, was about a businessman's futile attempt to escape the conventions of a small Midwestern metropolis. Having grown up in Sauk Centre, Minn., Lewis knew the territory.

"All the major novelists come from the Midwest, South, and East," Brennan goes on. "It might be that the climate house-locks those writers for at least half the year. In the South because of the heat and in the Midwest because of the freezing temperatures. What are you going to do in Minnesota and Nebraska from Nov. 1 through April 30?--beget children, drink, hunt, or write. Lots of writers do all those things. But above all they turn out novels."

That sounds like Hemingway, an Illinois boy who used to hunt and fish in northern Michigan and who spent a lot of his adult life begetting, drinking, hunting and writing.

"Look at all the good writers," Brennan says, "novelists who came to California from the other climate zones and just vanished into Hollywood and the sunny skies and beaches. "

William Faulkner comes to mind, and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald, both of whom came to Hollywood famous, and who are said to have languished here.

"In the Midwest cold months," Brennan argues, "there's no temptation to go outdoors. No little voice saying, go get some beach sunlight or sunbathe on your patio, and you can write in the afternoon. . . ." I get the picture. Imagine a writer who has grown up in New York or Chicago and has published a couple of novels about life in those cities, to much critical acclaim, working through the winter months in his heated flat, getting up now and then to look out the window at the snow, or have a shot of booze, or beget a child; but there is nothing to lure him outdoors and away from his typewriter. He has to write at least until spring comes, the sun melts the snow and the birds begin to sing.

In Hollywood, what happens to this same writer? He sits at his typewriter and puts a piece of paper in and writes "Chapter 1." Then he thinks about the moonlight party he went to the night before at Malibu, and the long-legged, golden Southern California nymphs he met. The night had been filled with moonlight, music, laughter, and the splash of young bodies in the pool. A refreshing young nymph is no farther away than his telephone. Oh, what the hell; the book can wait.

If it isn't a nymph it's the horse races, or a three-martini meeting with his publisher at the Polo Lounge; or a story conference with a producer. What novelist can stick to his novel and push on through Chapter 1 when he's been offered $5,000 a page to write a screenplay?

What about the writer who has grown up in Los Angeles? Why can't he write a great novel about growing up in Los Angeles? Because you can't write a serious novel about growing up in Lotus Land, can you? About surfing and starlit rides in an open convertible, and orange trees and balmy weather and scads of healthy beach girls? Where's the tension? Where's the conflict? Where's the misery?

When Lewis and Faulkner and Hemingway were growing up, I'll bet, they went outdoors and chopped wood to work off their frustrations; then they went back indoors and hit the typewriter.

What would a Los Angeles writer do to work off his frustrations? He'd go out on the terrace by the pool and have a gin and tonic and use the pool-side phone to call some nymph.

I don't think the booze alone would keep a novelist from being great. After all, three of our Nobel prize winners--Hemingway, Lewis and Faulkner--were monumental drinkers. And Steinbeck was no slouch; neither were Fitzgerald, John Cheever and John O'Hara.

I remember when I was in high school my English teacher told us that the great writers came from northern climes, for very much the same reasons cited by Brennan.

I figured right then that I would never be a great writer, because I can't bear cold weather; but then I began to wonder about some of the great books written by Mediterraneans, including the Bible. Certainly the men who wrote the Bible never saw much snow, and I imagine there were dancing girls and wine and other temptations even in those days.

If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could do it, why can't I?

Let's see--where was I?

"It was the end of summer. . . ."

Oh, well, maybe I'll just go out and sit by the pool and have a beer.

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