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Industry tales of epic despair

Novel gazing

May 21, 2006|Leslie Bohem | Special to The Times

I'm a screenwriter by trade, but I came to the novel about Hollywood long before I started writing screenplays. I grew up in Hollywood. My parents were both writers, and "The Day of the Locust" and "What Makes Sammy Run?" took me into my city in other times, into the city in which my parents had worked and met and fallen in love. When Marlowe visited Mavis Weld on the lot in "The Little Sister," I half expected him to run into my father. Just around the corner. Just out of reach.

I still read Hollywood novels all the time. Sometimes, still, to look for my parents, but more often because I find an odd, if often chilling, comfort in the fictional mirrors of my town and of my life. In the 20-some years that I've been writing for a living there have been many times when only a careful rereading of "The Player" could make me feel that I was not alone.

Let's assume you've read "Locust" and "Sammy" and hopefully Joan Didion's brilliant "Play It as It Lays," and Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories. Maybe Bruce Wagner's modern spin on Pat, Bud Wiggin, caught your fancy in "Force Majeure," or you've run into any of the myriad D-girl comic novels, which seem to come out once a week. Maybe you just need something to read until the next season of "Entourage" starts. Well, here are 10 less-well-known books I would like you to read.


Queer People

Carroll and Garrett Graham (1930)

I know it's always on everyone's list of overlooked Hollywood, but that's because it's so funny and because in many ways it presents the form that most of the great Hollywood novels would follow.

An outsider (sometimes cynical, sometimes innocent and, in the best books, a bit of both) comes west and is nearly drowned (or in the case of "The Day of the Locust," trampled) by the desperation, insanity and senselessness of our little dream factory.

In "Queer People," it's an alcoholic reporter named Whitey, who shows up from Chicago without a cent, gets blind drunk at a Hollywood party and wakes up in the morning with a hangover and a contract as a screenwriter at Colossal Pictures.

After that, It All Goes Terribly, and hilariously, Wrong. I've read that Howard Hughes owned the rights to this book and threatened to make it whenever any Hollywood big shot ticked him off.

I Should Have

Stayed Home

Horace McCoy (1938)

Possibly the bleakest noir I've ever read and even better than McCoy's more famous "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Struggling, out-of-work actors living in a bungalow near Fountain and Vine in the 1930s, lucky to get extra work ... and It All Goes Terribly Wrong. When one of them commits suicide, reporters want a shot of her body with the "instrument of death." Her friend puts a bunch of movie magazines in her hands. Fantastic!

The Squirrel Cage

Edwin Gilbert (1947)

Here's one that follows the form religiously. Our hero is a New York playwright. He follows his big play out to the coast. His play is rewritten. He's accused of being a communist. It All Goes Terribly, if predictably, Wrong. There's a point after which I can get tired of people coming to my hometown and trashing it, particularly when they were doing just fine where they were. Why don't you just stay there in the theater, where there are federal laws against changing a comma? Why not write another Booker-winning novel? Go back to New York or London, you self-righteous creeps, I'm making a living here....

But this one gives such a vivid impression of life in a writers' building at a studio in the late '40s, and the writer hero is getting so royally screwed by such venal screwers, that it's the perfect "bitter Hollywood" novel.

Dirty Eddie

Ludwig Bemelmans (1947)

Almost the same plot, and yet the flip side of Gilbert's book. A New York elevator operator is brought to Los Angeles to become a star, and a lefty writer from New York comes to write her movie. Once again, that fabulous form. It All Goes so Terribly Wrong that Dirty Eddie, a pig, becomes a huge star. This book is very funny, very witty and, somehow for all that, quite sweet, and I love telling people that the guy who wrote the "Madeline" books wrote one of the best novels about Hollywood.

The Disenchanted

Budd Schulberg (1950)

I love this book even more than "What Makes Sammy Run?" As a young screenwriter, Schulberg was assigned to "co-write" a college musical with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The true nature of the job was essentially to keep Fitzgerald from drinking. And It All Went Terribly and Irrevocably Wrong. This novel is the fictionalized account of that "collaboration." Beautifully written, it is one of the most heartbreaking stories I've ever come across.

The Deer Park

Norman Mailer (1955)

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