The three major characters of this novel, which is set in the 1930s during the time of the Great Depression, are Tod Hackett, Faye Greener and Homer Simpson. Tod Hackett is an Ivy League schooled and aspiring artist who comes to California in search of his muse. Although his day job is working in sets as a painter and decorator, Tod spends his evening studying the city’s people and buildings. He intends to capture the self-destruction mode of Los Angeles by depicting a riot in his art but becomes astounded when his own vision comes to reality in front of his own eyes. Tod’s love interest is Faye Greener, a pretty face who does not have the talent to be an actress. She enjoys having men fight for her attention although Tod quickly realizes the possibility of demise should he keep pursuing her. Though Tod is able to free himself from her clutches, another admirer of Faye is unable to do so – he is Homer Simpson, the third major character of the novel. Faye uses him for her own needs and he complies in the hope of attaining her love. He is introverted and unsure of himself. Homer has large hands which are stated by the author to have a life of their own because even when he may try to hide his discomfort, his hands reflect the emotional rollercoaster he is going through on the inside.
After he graduates from the Yale School of Fine Arts, Tod Hackett is hired by the National Films in Hollywood to work as a set and costume designer. At the beginning of the novel, three months have already passed since Tod has moved to Hollywood for his job but he still has not been able to get accustomed with the typical lifestyle there. He observes the vast similarity between the people and the buildings of the city; there is a great deal of artificiality and impersonation in both groups. However, the focal point of his attention revolves around a particular section of the entire population, the only section that seems to be free from the forces of pretense: the lower, middle-class Midwestern immigrants who, like Tod, stand apart from the rest of the crowd. He believes that these are the people who have come to California to die in there and decides to make these immigrants the subject of his next piece of art, “The Burning of Los Angeles”.
During the three months that have already lapsed, Tod has made some new friends in the city who cannot possibly be more different from each other. There is Abe Kusich, a short-tempered and short bookmaker; Faye Greener, a small-time actress who wants to be a famous heroine although she does not have the talent for it and Faye’s father, Harry Greener, a retired vaudeville clown who now works as a salesman, selling homemade silver polish from one house to another. Tod lives in the flat above Faye’s one and he fancies her although she has no interest in him, considering the fact he neither the wealth nor the appeal she is looking for in a man. She makes it clear to Tod that there is no possibility of a romantic relationship between the two of them. When Faye’s father, Harry, falls ill, Tod takes it upon himself to check on him in the hopes of impressing his daughter.
Harry had fallen ill during a visit to a customer’s house while he was at his job as a silver polish seller. The customer, Homer Simpson, had recently recovered from a serious case of pneumonia and had moved to Hollywood from Iowa for a change of scenery, as per his doctor’s instructions. Homer is unemployed and his source of money is his life savings. He is sexually inexperienced and his only physical encounter with a woman, a fellow tenant at a hotel he had been staying at while working as an accountant, had not gone very good. Although his gut tells him to avoid Faye, he cannot help himself and hence, he becomes one of her admirers. Tod realizes that Homer is similar to the kind of people he wishes to make the models of his painting, that is, he “came to California to die”, and so he makes friends with him. In addition to Homer and Tod, there are more men who wish to court Faye. Once, Faye takes Tod along with her on a hike to the hills where her on-and-off again boyfriend, Earle, and his friend, Miguel, live. Faye enjoys the attention of the three men who compete with each other to score her hand. By the end of the evening, the result is the following: Earle injures Miguel when he tries to flirt with Faye and Tod runs after Faye as she escapes to the woods to avoid his lecherous intentions.
Soon afterwards, Harry dies and Faye decides to shift to Homer’s apartment. She receives food and shelter from him alongside new dresses so she can look good for movie role auditions. Homer is gullible and easily manipulated by Faye, who convinces him to let Earle and Miguel stay in his garage for an extended period of time.
Meanwhile, Tod makes the decision to close the Faye chapter forever so he can, instead, focus on his painting project. He is uncomfortable about his feelings for Faye because she brings out a side of him that is aggressive and salacious. He keeps aside the drawings he has made of her and begins to spend more time on the models he has chosen for “The Burning of Los Angeles”. As part of his research, he visits the churches of the city and after observing the various people who frequent these houses of worship, he comes to the conclusion that they are all same in nature.
The novel progresses to a party that is held a few weeks into Tod’s new found zeal for work. Faye and Homer request Tod to come to a cockfight that is being held in Homer’s garage and being hosted by Miguel and Earle. Tod agrees to come and brings a friend to the party as well, Claude Estee. Abe Kusich, the bookmaker, is also there. After the cockfight has concluded, the guests make conversations with each other. Faye is the center of the attraction as she sits with Claude, Abe, Miguel and Earle as they all ogle at her half-naked body while she enjoys their fascination. Homer and Tod sit apart from the crowd. Homer attempts to discuss his emotions for Faye with Tod but Tod is exasperated with the amount of control Faye holds on Homer and the rest of the men. Similar to the hike in the woods, this party, too, ends in violence as Abe gets in a fight with both Earle and Miguel and would have lost his life if Claude and Tod had not intervened in the right time. Near dawn, there is another incident. Faye is found in bed with Miguel, leading to another fight between the two friends. Amidst all the commotion, Faye leaves Homer and Homer is unable to recover from the shock he receives due to her departure. He decides to shift back to Iowa. Tod understands Homer’s situation and realizes the fragility of his mental state. He goes downtown to run a few errands while Homer stays home but Tod is unable to return quickly due to being blocked by a huge mob creating traffic in front of a theater to watch the premiere of a new movie. Suddenly, Tod catches Homer with the crowd; he is holding two packs of luggage and looks very emotionless.
When Homer sits on a bench near the commotion, a fellow neighborly boy, Adore, finds him and tries to annoy him by throwing rocks at him from the back. Homer does not show any responses initially but when a rock hits him straight in the face, he finally lashes out and attacks the boy. Tod attempts to mollify the situation by getting Homer off the boy but the crowd has already seen the act and the damage has been done. There is chaos everywhere as they all target Homer and attack him for hitting the young boy. Instead of trying to help Homer, Tod is caught in his own thoughts. He sees the image of ‘The Burning of Los Angeles” clearly in front of his eyes as well as the riot he had planned to put in the painting. Dazed and confused, Tod has forgotten all about Homer. A cop takes him away from the scene and he does not complain. The end of the novel is a scene showing Tod sitting in the car as he tries to decide whether the sound that is ringing in his ears is coming from the police siren or from his own voice. He deliriously laughs aloud in correlation to the noise coming from the sirens that are ringing in the streets.