‘The Goodby People’ Is One of the Great Los Angeles Novels

A new reissue is the perfect excuse to pick up Gavin Lambert's classic work

Beautiful sunset through the palm trees, Los Angeles, California.
Sam Russek

I recently heard someone joke that there are enough Angelinos in New York and vice versa that both cities are essentially the same. Locals would disagree, but there’s some truth to this. A certain type of person believes they’re interesting purely by merit of living there; the rent is unconscionable; they seem to attract megalomaniac mayors; but above all, they’re both “global cities,” serving as inflection points for an obscene amount of wealth. Developers in both places have harvested a kind of fantasy: the city becomes less a place to be from or live, more of a destination or a theme park. It’s difficult to say who committed to the bit first, but their strategies have been exported to cities everywhere.

In his 1990 history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis wrote, “The paramount axis of cultural conflict in Los Angeles has always been about the construction/interpretation of the city myth, which enters the material landscape as a design for speculation and domination.” Like many locals, he was keenly aware of how developers wrench our experience of place. Before Davis, the writer Gavin Lambert had already watched his adopted city change since immigrating from London in the late 1950s, around the time Disneyland first opened. By the 1970s, the wealthy had mashed great swaths of LA-the-city into LA-the-commodity. In his novel The Goodby People, first published in 1971 and about to be reissued by McNally Editions, the narrator — a British screenwriter living in LA — recalls the demolition of an old movie studio in Santa Monica where he used to work. The area had since tumefied into a themed attraction: part suburb, part country club. “If you knew its past,” he says, “there’s a ghostliness behind the lack of charm.”

The critic Gary Indiana called Lambert’s work “hypnotically seductive.” That holds true for The Goodby People, which reads like a defeatist’s daydream, a vision induced by the fumes from “the last gasp of old Hollywood,” as Lambert’s friend Armistead Maupin once said of his work. That last gasp was a long one, coinciding with other convulsions: the Summer of Love and violent protests in 1968, the psychosocial bellyflop thereafter, and Nixon’s “law and order” politics, which paired a heightened control of the social strata with pressure-point neglect, zipping the wealthy into rich neighborhoods while punishing the unlucky with malice. Structured around three profiles, The Goodby People captures how this dynamic limits the spectrum of human possibility.

Lambert is most interested in the areas where the fantasy of Los Angeles stretches thin and the barbarous reality oozes to the surface. When this happens, his characters are reminded of their powerlessness. Self-discovery becomes a kind of Dantean torture device, fueled in various ways by their level of access to wealth and their pursuit of acceptance in a fragmented community. Really, a fantasy is an optimistic way of describing a delusion.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m living in a rented universe,” says Susan Ross, the subject of the first profile. She belongs to the Hollywood elite. Recently widowed, she used to model and act but now there’s no need: the fortune willed to her by her late husband, an “almost ugly” film producer, made work unnecessary. To pass the time, Susan smothers herself in ambient wealth. She grieves from her sequestered villa in Cannes; her oceanside bungalow north of Malibu; her friend’s yacht in the Caribbean. She’s made it, and she’s miserable. Luxury becomes a bubble. When she returns from the Caribbean, she’s somehow paler than when she left.

Lambert has a keen eye for the absurdities baked into the stunted lives of the talent, and as a result Susan’s section is the strongest. To borrow from Repo Man — a classic ’80s LA movie also by a British ex-pat — the subsequent characters are connected through a “lattice of coincidence.” It turns out that Susan once pulled over on the side of the road to pick up the narrator’s next focus, Gary Carson, a hitchhiking bisexual draft dodger. This is out of character for her — she expressed a fear of hitchhikers — but she wouldn’t be the first to make an exception for him. Gary has a “viking air”: tall, with long blond hair to his shoulders. Then, after a messy tryst with the narrator, Gary beds Keelie Drake, a young woman living in what was once the servants’ quarters on a large property in the hills and the narrator’s third focus — he runs into her on her way out of Gary’s shack before eventually meeting her again, alone at a house party. What ultimately binds Lambert’s cast together, beyond coincidence or occasional proximity, is how hopelessly lost they are and their floundering attempts to break free from their own lives.

Susan begins to suspect the cure to her ennui might be in bearing witness to others’ pain, a “shock treatment” to put things into perspective. Naturally, she signs up to help the poor, working with a volunteer organization to pass out cookies and coffee in the slums downtown. But after a homeless woman flings a cup of coffee in her face, she absconds with this new role and never looks back. From her secluded ranch-style home, everything she needs can be delivered to her; everything she wants can be bought. Her wealth allows her to put physical distance between herself and her fears, but the fears remain, and she becomes increasingly paranoid. “She was living like quite a few other people here,” the narrator says, “only more so.”

As a young critic in England, Lambert fell in with the Free Cinema Movement, a strain of social realist documentary filmmakers intent on exposing the materialities of class in everyday life. In the late 1940s he helped found Sequence, a short-lived yet influential magazine of film criticism, and edited Sight and Sound in the early 1950s. He once wrote that the movement’s prerogative was to make “films of protest . . . The camera-eye they turn on society is disenchanted, sad, occasionally ferocious and bitter.” The Goodby People is hardly a protest novel. Rather, it’s about what comes after the demonstrations, when the state reasserts its power. But folded into his characters’ malaise is an inarticulate desire for something different.

Susan withdraws into the sterile comforts of wealth, Keelie into the promise of spiritual guidance, but Gary rages — his lonely existence must be everyone else’s fault. When the narrator contends that his situation isn’t impossible, that there are things he could do and he’s convincing himself into inaction, Gary turns spiteful. “I don’t convince myself. Society convinces me, or tries to.”

This is ultimately how the city paralyzes them. They might desire more, but they’d never be so foolish as to fight for it. To them, the failure of the ’60s indicates a failure endemic to protest itself. They believe themselves unique, and isolate themselves from causes bigger than themselves. Keelie once tried to get interested in the revolution because of her then-boyfriend, but when the police arrived to violently squash a demonstration, a veil lifted. “She screamed more with terror than pain, because it seemed that nothing separated her now from blood and panic.” This is the city’s desired response.

At the heart of Lambert’s novel is a deep sense of stasis, of futility, of waiting for things to shift in some way or for someone to leave you behind. But this is itself a kind of fantasy. All cities, block by block, are a result of tangled social arrangements: disagreements, backroom deals, twisted plots, unanimous votes, concessions, mistakes, conspiracy theories, empty promises, urban legends, utopian ideals — a miasma of hard and soft violence. Giving some voice to this, Lambert invokes an immutable fact of life in LA: the San Andreas fault. “This long fracture in the earth’s subterranean crust extends for more than two hundred miles below the sunlit state,” he writes, “and nothing can be done about it. Everything else, theoretically, could be perfect. But the fault is irremediable, like a wound that will never heal and can always be reopened.” You can build over it, cordone it off, survey it, police it, but all it has to do is break. Somehow, to me, this is a pleasant reminder.

Sam Russek is from Houston, Texas, and currently lives in New York. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, Curbed, and other places. His Twitter is @samrussek.