Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Most Terrifying Town in the World: Horace McCoy's I Should Have Stayed Home

In two days, I'll be jetting across the sky, bound for L.A. for the Los Angeles Times Book Award ceremony and the L.A. Times Festival of Books.  Fobbit is up for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction on Friday and on the following day, I'll be on a panel called "Fiction With a Sideways Glance" with Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins), Diana Wagman (The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets) and Fiona Maazel (Woke Up Lonely).  I'm looking forward to the festival, but I have a feeling my head is going to explode at the thought of all those must-see panels and readings.  I mean, just take a look at the schedule!  Short of last-minute miracle-cloning, there's no way I can be everywhere I want to be on Saturday.  As with other festivals I've attended this past year, though, I know I'll be happy with the panels I do attend.

This will be my second trip to L.A.  The first--an all-expenses paid two-day "vacation" in Hollywood after I won an Oscar-prediction contest from the Anchorage Daily News--was too brief and too long ago to make much of a lasting impression (other than putting my palms in Cary Grant's handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater and "enjoying" a few neck-snapping rides at Universal Studios).  Between the awards ceremony and the festival events, I won't have time to see much of the city--sadly, not even these literary hotspots--so I'll depend on books to vicariously take me through the streets.

I can't think of a better tour guide than Horace McCoy.  I recently stumbled across his almost-forgotten noir novel I Should Have Stayed Home (first published in 1937).  McCoy is also the author of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, one of the many dark, hard-boiled novels I read during my deployment to Iraq in 2005.  Trust me when I say there's nothing like a sweaty marathon-dance competition to take your mind off the threat of possible mortar attacks on your Forward Operating Base.

And now I've found I Should Have Stayed at Home.  As soon as I got it, I flipped through the first pages (or, more appropriately, "scrolled" through the pages since I was reading it on my Kindle, courtesy of Open Road Media).  Thanks to my novel-in-progress, Dubble, I've been drawn to novels about Hollywood.  In the past couple of decades (the gestation period for Dubble), I've absorbed books by Bruce Wagner, Budd Schulberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, Nathanael West whose The Day Of The Locust remains one of my favorite bleak-funny novels ever written.  I Should Have Stayed Home looks like it will be a welcome addition to that Tinseltown shelf.  I'll be packing it in my carry-on bags as I head for L.A.  Hopefully, I won't feel like I should have stayed home.

Here's how it begins:

Sitting, sitting, sitting: I had been sitting since I came back from the courtroom, alone and friendless and frightened in the most terrifying town in the world. Looking out the window at that raggledy palm tree in the middle of the bungalow court, thinking Mona, Mona, Mona, wondering what I was going to do without her, that and nothing more: What am I going to do without you? and all of a sudden it was night (there was no purple or pink or mauve), deep, dark night, and I got up and went out to walk, going nowhere in particular, just to walk, to get out of the house where I had lived with Mona and where her smell was still everywhere. I had been wanting to get out for hours, but the sun had kept me in. I was afraid of the sun, not because it was hot but because of what it might do to me in my mind. Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I did not want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country—not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about. This is what I was afraid of now, I did not want to take a chance on seeing anything that might have made me wish I had stayed home, and this is why I waited for the darkness, for the night-time. That is when Hollywood is really glamorous and mysterious and you are glad you are here, where miracles are happening all around you, where today you are broke and unknown and tomorrow you are rich and famous...
      On Vine Street I went north towards Hollywood Boulevard, crossing Sunset, passing the drive-in stand where the old Paramount lot used to be, seeing young girls and boys in uniform hopping cars, and seeing too, in my mind, the ironic smiles on the faces of Wallace Reid and Valentino and all the other old-time stars who used to work on this very spot, and who now looked down, pitying these girls and boys for working at jobs in Hollywood they might just as well be working at in Waxahachie or Evanston or Albany; thinking if they were going to do this, there was no point in their coming out here in the first place.

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