California is usually portrayed as a palm-treed Eden, wholesome and easeful, but as the Roman Polanski scandal has reminded us, this sunny vision has a lurid underside. Noir is one form this shadow world takes, but the books I've selected below aren't noirish and share none of that genre's sense of mystery. Rather, transgression here is casual, explainable, and inextricably linked to the everyday world.
Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel depicts ruthless and tormented producer Monroe Stahr (loosely based on 1920s–30s Hollywood wunderkind Irving Thalberg) and marks a rethinking of the Kunstlerroman. In this new era, the captivating protagonist is not the artist, but rather the wheeling and dealing executive who enables and hinders him. Here, Fitzgerald helped invent Hollywood literature that is about commerce rather than art, prefiguring books such as Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays and Bruce Wagner's oeuvre.
One of the most satisfying—and vengeful—bean spillers you'll ever read, this memoir follows the meteoric rise and no less spectacular fall of producer Julia Phillips, the first woman to win a Best Picture Oscar, for 1973's The Sting. In prose that is ellipsis ridden and vague, speedily run-on and deadpan, Phillips airs not only her own dirty laundry but everyone else's as well. It's a hit job, for sure, but one that is radical in its honesty, especially in contrast to today's Holywood. And Phillips, although often just as cynical as the male Hollywood execs she rails against, clearly cares about her work, maybe more so than is advisable. "My blood is on that film," she writes about Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "How dare you fuck with my bodily fluids this way?"
It's easy to mock this book as one-note and teenage, with its affectless stoners cruising around in their identical BMWs, bleakly sporting Wayfarers and brandishing tubes of Bain de Soleil—a No Exit for the Fred Segal set. Ellis's flat tone is a defining formal strategy, though, and while the novel is limited in scope, it is also effective and prescient. Twenty-five years later, the book's cultural imprint can still be felt, from MTV's reality soap opera The Hills to the tabloid shenanigans of Hollywood starlets.
This story of a dim, brutish dentist in turn-of-the-century San Francisco might seem out of step with the rest of this Hollywood-heavy list (indeed, it's the only book here that takes place mostly in northern California). But Norris's novel still draws a crucial link between the California landscape and the mental and social aberrations it engenders. For Norris, the western frontier's golden fecundity breeds greed and despair, not progress. The novel's closing image, which depicts McTeague handcuffed to a slain nemesis, possessing a sack of coins but no water, is bad California to a T.
Sugerman began answering fan mail for the Doors when he was thirteen, and remained in their employ until his 2005 death from cancer. In this memoir of heroin addiction and recovery, legendary figures such as Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop feature prominently. But the book is notable for the no-remorse, no-regret, cool Sugerman himself—one of those LA characters who are fascinating despite their relative obscurity.
Naomi Fry is an editor of Paper Monument.