Comparisons to Nathaniel West are inevitable, but Lambert outshines West in his depictions of the bleak unreality of Los Angeles in the late 1950s. This is a collection of stories with interweaving characters who pop in and out of each story, sometimes through death, sometimes through disappearance to a tropical island. My favorite of the lot was The End of the Line, where the Countess Marguerite Osterberg-Steblechi goes blind and loses her hearing and suddenly decides she’d like to do a world tour while she’s still alive. Her “nieces” (not related, but close enough, and they stand to inherit the Countess’ millions) delude the Countess into thinking she’s on a boat across the Atlantic, checking into and out of hotels (always with stairs, broken elevators abound in these “hotels”), all the while the nieces work tirelessly to create the illusion of travel while keeping her safe within her Hollywood hills home, keeping her millions safe for their inheritance. They use fans and electric fires to change the temperature to suit the new locations, and become stuck in Marrakesh for weeks:
It seemed nothing would move the Countess. (The nieces) warned her about the hot season, announced it had come, closed all the windows and filled her room with electric fires. ‘It’s not as bad as I expected,’ the Countess said. Carlotta would add another fire. ‘Makes me a little sleepy,’ the Countess said.
We also meet the Countess in the title story, wanting to buy a pulp book for $0.25 and balking at the extra $0.10 she is charged. In The Slide Area, Lambert captures the dreamy drifting of the city:
It is only a few miles’ drive to the ocean, but before reaching it I shall be nowhere. Hard to describe the impression of unreality, because it is intangible; almost supernatural; something in the air… Nothing belongs. Nothing belongs except the desert soil and gruff eroded-looking mountains…. Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.
As he drives to the ocean, he passes a recent earth slide which has deposited three old women onto the road in a pile of dirt:
From a great pile of mud and stones and sandy earth, the legs of old ladies are sticking out. Men with shovels are working to free the rest of their bodies. Objects are rescued first, a soiled tablecloth and a thermos flask and what looks like a jumbo sandwich, long as a baby eel. Then an air cushion and more long sandwiches, and a picnic basket, and at last the three old ladies themselves. They are all right. They look shaken and angry, which is to be expected. A few minutes ago they had been sitting on the Palisades, in a pleasant little hollow free from the wind. The cloth was spread for a picnic… Absolutely silent at first, the ground beneath them disappeared.
Other notable characters are his friend Mark who worships the sun, becoming impressively tan, always chasing more rays, shirking real work, saying “the sun’s the only thing that matters.” Skipping town in the narrator’s beat up Cadillac, he winds up on an island in the middle of the Pacific, sending a cryptic postard, “This is a perfect little island though I’m not sure I want to stay. The trouble is, it’s impossible for me to leave.” And Clyde Wallace, the handsome psychotic son of a famous agent, spends three hours with the narrator while he attempts to leave his girlfriend but must retrieve his clothes. And Emma, the 14 year old from small town Illinois, who runs away from home to become famous, resisting the advice of the narrator to give up her hopes.
Now more time passes. I am working at the studio every day. The sound of hammering echoes across the back lot wilderness, and I suppose they must be building something new. It seems a long while ago that they were shooting the science-fiction film, and the war film, and the western; now they are shooting a western, a war film, and a science-fiction film.