Seven Novels That Captured the Dark Side of Life in LA

Life in LA. There’s nothing quite like it. Love it or hate it, no other city in the world can match the energy of a town that dreams enough for an entire planet. And sure, there are a few nightmares to balance out those dreams. Over the decades, several writers have found an unlikely muse in LA’s shadows. Here are just a few examples of novels that accurately captured the nuanced experience of the dark side of life in LA. 

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Life in LA was so intrinsic to Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical oeuvre that it’s difficult to choose just one novel. We went with Hollywood because it provides a biting examination of the titular dream machine. 

But from his very first novel, Bukowski refused to simply observe the dark side of the city. He absolutely wallowed in it. He revealed that, at times, the darker side is also the most addictively mesmerizing face of the LA diamond. 

Hollywood finds Bukowski’s analog, Henry Chinaski, navigating the seemingly impossible task of getting a movie made. It highlights that even the worst movie you’ve ever seen is a miracle committed to celluloid. And in LA, miracles happen every minute. 

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

In 1939, writer Raymond Chandler changed American literature when he introduced the world to hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Marlowe would continue to appear in 23 short stories and a total of seven full novels throughout the writer’s career. While Chandler didn’t invent the subgenre of noir fiction, he may have perfected it… and it all started here. 

The reader views 1930s Los Angeles through Marlowe’s cynical gaze as he navigates complex relationships and clandestine crimes. Chandler’s work was popular enough to influence subsequent novels, movies and television. Even today, there’s a certain thrill to reading a Chandler story when Marlowe inevitably visits your neighborhood. 

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

How much scrubbing does it take to keep the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame shining? We have a feeling Joan Didion has an idea. An American literary legend, Didion illustrated that she fully understood and probably even loved her native California. 

That may not be immediately obvious in Play It as It Lays which paints a compelling portrait of life in LA in the 1960s. Beneath the decadent glamor, buried grime always threatens to find a way in. 

Didion’s first novel, Run, River, may be more of a valentine to the California experience at face value. But even amidst the nihilism and ersatz glitter of Play It as It Lays, it’s easy to find something to love… or at least a book you can’t put down. 

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Los Angeles in the 1980s was a place of excess; especially if you had a wealthy father in the film industry, like Clay, the central character in Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel, Less Than Zero. It follows Clay as he returns home from an east coast art school for Christmas break. But one semester away is all it took to break his enchantment, revealing his associates to be completely numbed by privilege. 

Consistently straddling the white powdery line between disaffected and disturbing, Clay meanders through sex, drugs, and new wave with death (and some things that are arguably worse) always at his elbow. Ellis is the author who would go on to portray 1980s New York in American Psycho, so LA by all accounts got off easy. Still, he spins a morally gray story that scrapes away the superficial gloss just to find more gloss underneath. And by that point, you’re afraid to scrape any further. 

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

Like so many of the writers on this list, James Ellroy visited LA in his novels multiple times across his (still very much active) career. But no novel crested the pop culture wave quite like 1990’s L.A. Confidential

Reviving the noir style, an LA specialty, Ellroy spun a riveting period piece through a contemporary lens. Inspired by noir luminaries like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he infused his pulpy tales of crime with his personal experiences growing up in LA. 

While the setting is crucial to the flavor of his work, Ellroy took a traditional approach to turning L.A. Confidential into such a massive success. He wrote a damn good story. 

Ask the Dust by John Fante

Before Bukowski, there was literary legend John Fante, an Italian-American who wrote what many consider the “great Los Angeles novel” in 1939 with Ask the Dust. Set during the Great Depression, this roman á clef shows a life in LA that would be almost unrecognizable in today’s palm jungle

A story of soured romance against sun-bleached desert facades, Fante revolutionized LA literature by refusing to ignore the dark side. Instead, he plumbed it for a heartbreaking beauty that wasn’t appreciated in its original run, but has since been regarded as a work of genius. 

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

Lest you get the impression life in LA is reserved for grizzled detectives, alcoholics, fame chasers, and trust fund nepo babies, Francesca Lia Block’s edgy young adult novel Weetzie Bat introduces a surreal take on growing up in LA. 

Due to its progressive take on topics such as the AIDS crisis, abortion, and gay marriage, the 1989 book found fervent opposition from conservative groups. Yet, efforts to ban the book only gained it more attention and even accolades for introducing young adults to complex social themes in a manner that respected their emotional intelligence. 

Weetzie Bat was just the beginning for Block and her mythical land of Shangri-L.A. Her characters would continue their adventures in her popular Dangerous Angels series for young adults. 

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