The il­lu­sion of home

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Xan Brooks

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.

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