The illusion of home
Overland by Graham Rawle Chatto & Windus, 384pp
Viewed from above, Overland, California, is a patchwork community of redroofed houses and bucolic sheep meadows. There is a church and a tennis court and a tranquil blue lake. It’s 1942 and the world is at war. But unremarkable Overland sits apart.
It is only at ground level that the facade starts to flake. The Overland diner serves only coffee and doughnuts. The fire hydrants emit not water but steam. And the tranquil blue lake is a vast sheet of tarpaulin: toss an apple on to its surface and the fruit risks being sucked down a vent and dropped on to the shop floor of the Lockheed aircraft factory concealed down below. The town, it transpires, is more involved in the war than it would have us believe.
The concept of the ersatz American town is almost as old as the American town itself. It’s there in Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, with its pick-and-mix of “Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Swiss chalets and Tudor collages” and on screen in films such as Pleasantville and The Truman Show. But Graham Rawle’s tale of fakery is grounded in fact. In the immediate wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US War Department recruited the services of the major Hollywood studios for what became known as “Operation Camouflage”. This involved disguising air bases and factories on the coast of California to the point where they blended in with the surrounding neighbourhoods. The Lockheed Corporation plant covered 40 hectares and employed 25,000 workers. But from the air it could pass for a suburb of Burbank.
Rawle’s master illusionist is George Godfrey, God for short, an art director on loan from the Warner Bros lot, who explains: “Warner Brothers studios are about the same size as the Lockheed plant. Lockheed puts out one B-24 bomber a week, plus a number of smaller planes and parts. Warners puts out one class-A feature plus a number of B-movies and shorts. Some of those take off and fly; some of them get shot down.”
Godfrey is determined his Overland will be bought by the public. It certainly casts a spell on the Lockheed employees who find their way above ground. First Japanese-American Kay scrambles through the vent to emerge in the lake “like Botticelli’s Venus”. Then pregnant starlet Queenie begins pushing a doll in a pram about the suburban streets, disappointed to discover there are no speaking parts on this set. Possibly Overland has even come to seduce its creator. When the project is mothballed, Godfrey cannot let it go. He wants to build a windmill to “add character” and insists that every road should be named.
In Godfrey’s opinion there is little difference between the Hollywood dream factory and the Burbank aircraft plant. Equally it might be argued that not much separates the fake town from the real. It is this conceit, finally, that makes Overland so appealing. Having arranged his stage-flats and his harumscarum performers, Rawle manages to make them all feel of value. The place is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not home.