Beautiful, Lonely, and Degraded: Gavin Lambert’s LA

Beautiful, Lonely, and Degraded: Gavin Lambert’s LA

Beautiful, Lonely, and Degraded: Gavin Lambert’s LA

In his 1979 novel The Goodby People, he finds a picturesque city defined by its sense of disconnection and immense sadness.


First published in 1971, Gavin Lambert’s delectable novel The Goodby People takes place in a Los Angeles as beautiful as it is degraded: The dusk comes on warm, with “just enough humidity to make it cling,” and scarlet flowers float on swimming pools, while the Santa Monica mountains, choked by smog, appear as desolate in the distance as a “photograph of the moon.” The city’s inhabitants are similarly disaggregated and dissociated by distances of “twenty or thirty miles.” Sex is casual; relationships are transitory, and people tend to leave without a trace. Everyone in The Goodby People, whether they hail from the rich enclaves of the coast or a squat in East Hollywood, is alone, it seems, but connection is our narrator’s intent.

Each of the novel’s three long chapters is devoted to a different person that the unnamed narrator—a novelist and screenwriter, like Lambert—briefly becomes close to, or as close as he possibly can through the hovering haze of isolation. One is a friend he knows from his Hollywood milieu; the others he meets by chance along the way. Though there’s a loose overlay established among the primary characters (their bond is of the carnal variety), the book has little in the way of plot. Rather, as the writer Gary Indiana, a friend of the author’s, puts it: “Lambert’s ‘I’ resembles a detective whose curiosity impels him to follow leads, solving mysteries of personality rather than crimes.” This predilection draws him to a glamorous, recently widowed, and sometimes suicidal former model named Susan Ross; a gorgeous but pathologically insecure early twentysomething, Gary Carson, who is evading the draft for the war in Vietnam; and Keelie Drake, a young woman adrift, working at odd jobs and living alone in a grand old estate in the hills, possibly losing her mind.

The narrator, who can seem at once like a foil as well as a compassionate confidant, is the frame through which we come to know them all. Susan proves the most elusive and, in some ways, the most compelling. Her backstory, which the narrator delivers full cloth as he waits for her to emerge on the deck of her rented beach house, involves a rough and rugged childhood in the deserts and plains and an adolescence earning her keep as a model in New York, before finally, at age 39, becoming a member of the Hollywood aristocracy. Now, Susan’s search for self is fueled by an unlimited bank account, immense spiritual striving, and a deep ennui. Just as the narrator pins her down, she leaves town again, her phone disconnected, her life elucidated to him only when it surfaces in the headlines. He remarks that their friendship is never quite real, but then, nothing in Susan’s life really seems to be. (“I’ve come to realize the mind can achieve anything as long as reality doesn’t get in its way,” she tells him at one point over the phone before passing out from a sleeping pill.) When she remarries, her not-quite-real friendship with the narrator is apparently over for good, though she barely sees her new husband either; he disappears on business, leaving her sequestered in a house sheltered by guards, her interactions now limited to her devoted staff.

Susan’s is a portrait of the cocooning effects of fame, wealth, and middle age. Southern California offers her “plenty of houses large and isolated enough to guard…from everything except the hills and the ocean.” The other rich people she associates with—many of whom have an aura of “joylessness,” the narrator observes—expand her circuit to include yachts on the Caribbean and villas in Rome and the South of France. But Lambert clearly doesn’t see money as the sole cause of isolation. The narrator’s relationships to Gary and Keelie suggest that being young and impecunious isn’t necessarily a better fate. Naivete, delusion, and the thin trail of fantasy wafting through LA, as prevalent as the “gas and carbon” in the air, are just as isolating for them as wealth is for Susan.

Gary falls into an affair with the narrator when the young man shows up at his house one day after leaving his perch at an East Hollywood squat. Gary’s beauty and charisma, even his sexual ease, haven’t endowed him with any sense of security or comfort; he approaches intimacy “as a contest from which he has to emerge the winner.” Intrigued, but also slightly bored, the narrator resists Gary’s games, “his little, imprisoning domestic rituals.” One evening, he nurses Gary through a bleak acid trip, at the end of which Gary pledges to read the narrator’s novels and tell him what he thinks. But he’s too insecure to shift his focus to anyone but himself. The next morning, he’s gone, having taken some of the narrator’s clothes with him. Later, the narrator will see his missing robe on another paramour of Gary’s, Keelie, when he goes to check up on her. (They’d met at a party, discussed Gary, and become friends.) Out of work and broke, with various boyfriends having left one by one to venture off to communes or into the unknown, Keelie has been wearing the bathrobe alone in her little house for weeks, subsisting on wine and the potato chips that the liquor store throws in for free. She is unable to articulate her struggle to anyone. Her version of loneliness is similar to the one Susan describes: not so much lacking companionship as “being unable to express your deepest feelings and most private thoughts.” This is a condition that can only be aggravated in a town like Hollywood, portrayed by Lambert here as a place so shallow that no one would likely care to hear such thoughts or feelings anyway.

A Hollywood novel set on the very outskirts of the industry, The Goodby People nonetheless reads like an allegory for a particular juncture of motion picture history. It renders the reverberating death knell of the studio system and the film industry’s race, in the late 1960s, to embrace youth culture and rogue financing for its projects. Lambert captures Hollywood’s transfer from an actual site of production where movies are made into something more virtual, a simulacrum where people come, not to work in the cinema, but simply to feel “free.” Susan Ross’s husband, Charlie, for example, had been a powerful producer; when the book opens, he has recently died in her arms of a heart attack. His replacement: an absent but multifarious businessman. Part of Keelie Drake’s instability is her literal haunting by the presence of Lora Chase, an actress from Hollywood’s golden age, in whose mansion Keelie is living. The phantom star appears to her in her sleep and sitting in her room, decked out in diamonds. More than once, the narrator encounters an old studio either in the process of being auctioned off or already demolished. He remarks on the change that absence leaves on the landscape:

The bulldozers came, pulverizing the Last Chance Saloon, the entrance to a Chinese temple, the façade of a turn-of-the-century mansion. A desert appeared. Then boxes of glass and metal soared upward, above patios with relentless automated fountains. Office blocks, stores, restaurants and a hotel replaced that mythical country where Tyrone Power sought the Answer in the East and Love was a Many-Splendored Thing and Gene Tierney, in a gingerbread house, was forever a Prisoner of it.

Without the portal to fantasy provided by the studios and the artistry of early Hollywood, all that remains is “the fringes of another, ordinary anonymous suburb.”

The tale of the city’s and the industry’s transition was one that Lambert had sought to tell before in perhaps his best-known book, Inside Daisy Clover (1963). The third in a quartet of novels about Hollywood, which began with The Slide Area (1959) and ended with Running Time (1983)—Inside Daisy Clover was, as Lambert described in his memoir, the story of a showdown between the Old, as represented by the figure of the producer, and the New: Daisy, the spunky star whose rise the novel charts, and who was meant to be a “projection of the emerging spirit of the sixties.”

Lambert witnessed the changing of the guard in Hollywood from the ground level. A former film critic and editor of the influential journal Sight and Sound, he went on to direct a single movie, Another Sky, about an English woman’s sexual awakening in Morocco. He came to Los Angeles from England in 1956 on the invitation of the director Nicholas Ray, with whom he worked on several films and had a love affair. Lambert spent time on the payroll of studios like Paramount and MGM, where his original scripts were shelved (thankfully, he felt) before he wrote the screenplay adaptations for films such as Sons and Lovers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, both of which were nominated for Oscars.

Though Lambert later wrote of the 1960s with fondness, extolling the optimism of “universal love” and the merits of a “boring but beatific drug culture” before it forged a connection “with organized crime,” the narrator of The Goodby People maintains a chiller relationship to the hippie ethos—perhaps because, by the 1970s, the idealism was fading, and only superficial traces of it remained. This dissonance provides Lambert with some of his most delicious lines and set-ups. Discussing a grisly murder clearly based on the Manson family’s random killing spree, Susan and her friend wonder: “What has happened to people’s motives? If I’m going to be killed, I want to know why.” When the narrator attends a hip, moneyed party with Susan, they meet an old flame of hers, a journalist lecturing everyone on the devastation he has just encountered in Biafra. Of course, no one is interested. Even Susan, upon hearing the account of “the village massacre” the journalist witnessed, whispers to the narrator, “Dear God, it’s Bill. I wonder who let him in?”

Lambert is equally inspired when it comes to describing a concert that Gary drags the narrator to—something between Woodstock, Altamont, and LA’s own Love-Ins. A “phallus-shaped balloon” hovers over the crowd, and a goat is brought onstage, followed by “grotesque dolls of cops and generals, eyes and teeth and limbs missing.” Someone gives birth—the narrator hears the baby’s first cries—and a naked man walks past, “penis wildly erect, eyes glazed and meaningless.” The lack of meaning as it applies to Gary’s existence, though, is tragic. He has given up any possibility of a normal life, but it’s clear that his draft-dodging doesn’t equate to political commitment, and certainly not action. The narrator encourages him to find a cause, even if it’s himself. Instead, Gary continues to bide his time, spending his days smoking weed on the beach while the narrator works on his scripts. Ultimately, after he leaves the narrator, Gary further distances himself from society in the embrace of a cult.

Is the isolation of Los Angeles ultimately to blame for such behavior, and for the immense sadness in The Goodby People? Is it the shadow cast by the film industry? (The combination of the two in Lambert’s work, Indiana notes, equals a place “which sucked in, chewed up, and discarded its dreamers in truly industrial quantities.”) Or is loneliness simply a contemporary condition, impossible to escape? Susan suggests to the narrator that loneliness is the natural state of artists and philosophers, a darker strain of what he finds necessary in life: “solitude and contemplation.” Could loneliness ever be the freedom it sometimes masquerades as?

The Goodby People is ambiguous on this last point, ending with an orgy scene from which the narrator awakes perfectly sated. He spies a girl floating in the pool, who’s been left behind by whoever brought her the night before. The party’s host, a 34-year-old wrestling with what to do with all his unfocused “talent,” decides he wants to relive the revelry of the previous night. He invites the girl back to bed, but not before asking her if she has anyone to call who might be wondering where she is. Her answer—“no one in the world”—might at first seem devastating; but in today’s era of perpetual connectivity, which has yet to banish any of the feelings Lambert so aptly describes, it can also sound just slightly like liberation.

Shortly after publishing The Goodby People, Lambert departed Los Angeles to spend more than a decade in Tangier. Before the move, he’d forged some deep connections in the city, becoming close to cultural figures like Christopher Isherwood, George Cukor, Natalie Wood, and Tony Richardson. By the time he returned to LA, at the end of the 1980s, all of them were dead. He devoted the remaining years of his life, before his death in 2005, to composing biographies of many of the people—including Cukor and Wood—he’d known there intimately. In his memoir, Lambert writes of feeling that without them, Los Angeles was never quite the same place again. In his own life, friends were what made the city less lonely, and feel more like home.

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