*SPOILER ALERT!!! The following information will reveal the plot of the novel*
Tod Hackett, a recent graduate of Yale School of Fine Arts, is recruited by talent scout as a set and costume designer for National Films in Hollywood. Tod, living in the city for the past few months, is mesmerized by the people and structural design of the city. However, he is most amazed by the “kind” of people who live in Hollywood. Tod labels them as people who “have come to California to die.” He decides to paint them in his forthcoming masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles.”
While living in Los Angeles, Tod has acquired a cast of friends including Abe Kusich, a tough-talking and destructive dwarf; Faye Greener, who wants to be a movie star; and her father, Harry Greener, a former vaudeville clown who was unable to find a job in Hollywood and is now selling homemade silver polish door-to-door. Tod is interested in Faye; however, she wants to remain friends since Tod has no money and is not handsome.
Tod attends a party held by Claude Estee, a well-paid screenwriter. Here, Tod sees a fake dead horse in a swimming pool, which Estee and his wife Alice have purchased to amaze their guests. Tod tries to leave the party; however, Claude asks him to come with the rest of the guests to watch a dirty movie at Audrey Jenning’s brothel. When the exciting section is about to begin, the movie projector, playing Le Predicament de Marie, breaks and the guests start to yell and applaud in displeasure.
Tod begins to spend more time at Faye’s apartment in order to help with Faye’s sick father. Tod enjoys spending time with Harry as he describes stories from his past life as a clown. Tod meets Homer Simpson, one of Faye’s new suitors. His first thought of Homer was that he was one of the people who came to California to die.
Homer is from Wayneville, Iowa. While living there he acquired pneumonia and was in the hospital. When he got out, he lost his job and his doctor told him to go to California to rest. When he first came to California, he was living in a hotel. He then decides to buy a house. Homer fears not waking up in the morning. He has a daily routine which consist of getting up, taking a bath, and thinking about his life and his loneliness. Before coming to Los Angeles, he was a bookkeeper at a hotel, and once dealt with a lady named Miss Martin. She had been staying at the hotel for a while, yet she never paid her bills. It was Homer’s job to collect the hotel payments from her. One night he was in her room comforting her when she began to cry. The next day she paid and left the hotel. Homer went searching for her, but she was nowhere to be found.
Hungry one night, Homer debates whether or not he should leave his house to get food. There is nothing to eat at home so he decides to go to Hollywood Boulevard. While walking, he comes across a homeless man who asks him for a nickel in a threatening way; so Homer gives him a couple of coins. He then goes to the SunGold Market to buy food. He returns home in a taxi cab due to the darkness in his neighborhood. Even though Homer has a simple daily routine, he is never bored. In particular, he observes a lizard in his backyard living in a hole near one of his plants. The lizard is very amusing to him.
Harry goes to Homer’s house to sell his shoe polish. At first Homer does not let Harry into his home. Harry begins to feel sick, so Homer offers him a glass of water inside his house. Faye comes looking for her father and gets impatient because he is taking long. Homer and Faye have lunch together at the house while Harry is inside sleeping. Homer stares at Faye while she is there. Finally, Harry feels better and they leave. Homer sits in his chair at home and cant stop thinking about Faye. Thoughts keep running through his mind of many things, and he gets frightened. He decides to go to bed to sleep so that maybe he can stop thinking about everything. In the morning he wakes up and still thinks of Faye, he decides to take a walk and walks by her apartment.
After Harry becomes ill at Homer’s house, Tod begins to visit him more often. Tod’s attraction towards Faye strengthens, even though Tod finds Faye extremely fake and artificial. Tod would normally be disgusted by a woman exhibiting this type of behavior, but in Faye he finds it charming. Faye explains to Tod her days spent making up stories in her head, choosing from a variety of fantasy lives she has created. Tod kisses Faye, and when he attempts to embrace her in a more passionate kiss, Faye tears away. Later on, Tod figures out the way he wants to depict Faye in his painting of “The Burning of Los Angeles.” He describes her as running, with eyes closed, and a strange half-smile.
Earle Shoop is introduced as a handsome cowboy from Arizona. Tod asks Faye out for a date, but she tells Tod she is already going out with Earle. Faye invites Tod to come along. The three of them go to Earle’s camp to eat food around the fire. Miguel shows off his fighting cocks at the camp and they all sit around the fire and drink tequila. Miguel and Faye begin singing a song in Spanish, followed by seductive dancing around the fire. Tod takes in all of the scenery and people around him and begins brainstorming more ideas for his painting. He reminds himself he is not a prophet, only a painter.
Tod stops by to see Faye and Harry, and Faye is out at the movies with Homer. Instead, Tod sits with Harry, recollecting his acting performances. Harry continues talking until he has to stop out of pain. Tod returns to the Greeners’ apartment to find out that Harry has died. Faye accuses herself of killing Harry. She came home and was talking about herself, and fixing her face and skin, and ignored the fact that Harry didn’t respond to anything she said. It wasn’t until she began singing and wasn’t told to shut up by Harry that she finally went to over to him, only to realize he was dead. Funeral plans begin, and Faye becomes concerned with the price of the funeral. Tod offers to help raise money, but Faye denies accepting.
Tod shows up to Harry’s funeral drunk. He drank in order to have the courage to face Faye. He had not seen her since Harry died. When Tod sees Faye, he kisses her. Once she realizes he has had something to drink, she pulls away in annoyance. Tod sits behind Faye in the funeral, and takes in the surroundings. Tod describes the imitation stained glass windows and electric organ which plays a recording of a Bach chorale. As Tod pays close attention the music, he notices nobody else seems to be listening to it. He listens to Faye sobbing, and soon after the congregation, is told they could view the body of Harry. It is then that Tod escapes out of the chapel.
After her father’s death, Faye moves out of San Berdoo. Tod wants to know where she went, until by chance he sees her walking outside his office wearing a costume. He follows her, but as soon as she turns the corner, he loses her. He assumes she was working in “Waterloo”. He walks across many sets including a desert, a jungle, and a Paris street. Suddenly Tod hears the rumble of a cannon and he knew it was from “Waterloo.” Tod stood behind a tree so he could observe from a distance. As he watches, he notices one of the props, Mont St. Jean, is unfinished. While filming, the hill suddenly collapses, creating a raucous.
When Tod arrives to his office he finds Faye waiting for him. He apologizes for his behavior at the funeral. Faye tells Tod that she is living with Homer due to a business arrangement and invites Tod to have dinner at Homer’s house. Outside Tod and Homer are talking when suddenly a lady approaches them. She is looking for her child named Adore. As the mother and child leave, the child turns back and makes faces at Homer. While thinking to himself, Tod comes to the conclusion that he will stop chasing after Faye. He avoids her for the next months, and begins visiting churches across Hollywood.
As time progresses, Homer and Faye’s relationship begins to change. One day Homer invites Tod to go to the Cinderella Bar. At the club, Faye insists that Homer takes a drink of champagne, even though it makes him sick. Faye forces the drink down Homer’s throat. Faye then goes out to the dance floor and leaves Tod and Homer alone. Homer takes this opportunity to tell Tod about Miguel’s ugly black hen. Tod tells him to report the chickens to the police. When Faye returns Tod tells her she is taking advantage of Homers generosity. Slightly embarrassed, Faye apologizes for her behavior.
Tod and Claude go to the cock fight the next day. While everyone is gathered in the driveway, Abe informs them the cock fight has been cancelled. Abe and Earle start arguing and insulting one another. Claude mentions he had never seen a cock fight before. Claude then decides to pay fifteen dollars to see a chicken fight. Hermano and Juju are the selected chickens. Juju ends up killing Hermano during the fight. Homer invites everyone inside his house for a drink where Faye appears with her silk pajama. Claude compliments Faye and she smiles back at him. Faye then starts talking about her film career and all the men just stare at her body movements and rather ignore what she is saying. Homer taps on Tod’s shoulder, but Tod ignores him. Homer tries to tell Tod something but fails several times. Suddenly Tod screams out that Faye is a whore.
Tod walks back into the house and sees Earle, Abe, Kusich, and Claude standing together watching Faye dance seductively with Miguel (referred to as the Mexican). Tod begins looking for Homer and finds him locked in a bedroom. Tod tries speaking with Homer, but Homer tells him to go away. When Tod returns to the living room Earle is dancing with Faye. Abe, wanting to dance with Faye, becomes furious and starts a fight with Earle. Faye notices that her pajamas are torn, so she undresses in front of Tod. With only her underwear on, she returns to her room.
Tod wakes up and decides to go visit Homer to apologize. After several knocks on Homer’s door, Tod finds the door to be unlocked. He goes into the house and sees Homer sitting on the couch staring at the backs of his hands. Tod notices Faye’s room is empty. Over a cup of coffee, Homer begins to tell Tod what happened. Late during the night before, Homer heard noises coming from Faye’s room. Thinking something might be wrong, Homer entered her room and found Faye and Miguel lying naked in bed. Feeling embarrassed, Homer quickly left the room. Soon after, Earle heard moaning coming from Faye’s room. He entered, and a fight began between Earle and Miguel. Eventually, Earle and Miguel left the house. Homer went to sleep, and by morning everyone was gone.
Tod, still at Homer’s house, watches Homer lay on the couch sleeping with his body curled into a ball. Tod then decides to go eat some dinner. And if Homer remains the same when he returns, Tod plans on waking him and calling a doctor. Before going to dinner, Tod goes to Hodge’s saddlery store where he might find Earle, and in turn find Faye. Tod sees Calvin there and starts having friendly conversation. Tod soon leaves the store to go eat at a restaurant. He wonders whether Faye is with Miguel or working with Mrs. Jenning again; but he knows that somehow she is going to be alright. He wishes he had the courage to knock Faye over the head with a bottle and rape her. He begins imagining a scenario where he could accomplish the rape, until the waiter interrupts his daydreaming.
While walking back to Homer’s house, Tod decides to stop and watch a crowd standing outside Kahn’s Persian Palace. The crowd consists of lower-middle class people who were all waiting for the premier of a new picture. There are several police men lining the crowd, trying to keep control. As Tod walks a short distance along the crowd they begin making fun of him. A reporter is there describing the scene and encouraging the rowdy crowd. He then sees Homer walking nearby carrying suit cases. Tod tries to convince Homer to take a different route to get to a cab, but Homer refuses to listen. Eventually, Homer sits motionless on a bench very close to the growing crowd. Adore Loomis, the young boy who lived across the street from Homer, attempted to play a game, or trick, on Homer. But after Homer does not respond, Adore becomes frustrated and throws a rock at Homer’s head. Adore then tries to run away, but trips and falls to the floor. Homer then began stomping on the boy repeatedly. Tod tries to stop Homer, but before he knew it, a riot breaks out, and the crowd turns into a mob. Tod describes his experience being lost in the violent mob, and here he begins picturing his painting, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” A policeman soon comes to Tod’s rescue, carrying him into a police car. As he hears the ambulence siren, Tod immitates the sound.