We'll let West speak for himself here: Tod, our hero, is "a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes" (1.8). Yeah, great. So, is this dude an inspired artist? A love-obsessed madman? A ride-or-die best bro? Or just your average, run-of-the-mill schmuck?
As it happens, this might be one of those rare instances when all of the above is the only correct answer.
If you asked Tod, he'd probably define himself as an artist. But that wasn't always the case. After graduating from Yale art school, he almost quit painting because he was bored by clichéd subject matter like "a fat red barn, old stone wall or sturdy Nantucket fisherman" (1.11). In fact, he takes a costume-design job partly to put his painting days behind him. So you can understand his surprise when he touches down in L.A. and finds a wealth of artistic inspiration in "the people who come to California to die" (more on those folks in a bit).
Tod's other most worn hat is that of "Tod the Lover." Actually, scratch that—let's call him Tod the Creep. That's because his crush on seventeen-year-old Faye Greener quickly explodes into stalker-level proportions, with Tod chasing the poor kid like she's his Holy Grail. Ultimately, this obsession comes to a head when Tod fantasizes about raping Faye, which is his way of asserting his power over her despite her rejections—though that, too, is only a fantasy for him, like just about everything else in his life. Still, this reveals a disturbing aspect to Tod's personality that we didn't know existed.
Becoming nasty, disillusioned, and borderline psychotic actually seems to happen a lot when you're in Hollywood—just ask "the people who come to California to die" if you don't believe us. These people—"all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence"—are what inspire Tod to start painting again (27.81). We eventually learn that they're just average, middle-class Americans, people who bought into the American Dream, moved to California after retirement, and were then horrified to learn that it sucks.
For his part, Tod looks to investigate this dynamic in his most ambitious painting yet: "The Burning of Los Angeles."
"The Burning of Los Angeles" is something else. The painting depicts Tod and his friends—Claude, Homer, Harry, and Faye—being chased away from the burning wreckage of L.A. by "the people who come to California to die." This says two things. First, it reflects Tod's belief that widespread disappointment will lead to a "civil war"—although "the Angelenos would be first [...] their comrades all over the country would follow" (15.137). Second, it reflects his belief that he and his friends are up the creek without a paddle.
In particular, Homer holds a special place in Tod's heart—though we're not quite sure why. Maybe it's because Tod wants to protect Homer's innocence. Maybe it's because he doesn't feel threatened by Homer's relationship with Faye. Or maybe he just digs hanging with the guy. Regardless of the reason, however, the novel's few moments of actual tenderness take place between these two men. Still, even Tod is sometimes irritated by Homer's tendency to act like a "cringing clumsy dog who is always anticipating a blow" (20.3).
That's what makes the book's ending such a bummer. After Faye dumps Homer, Tod gains renewed sympathy for his friend and tries to help him get home to Waynesville, Idaho. Sadly, it's not so easy. Homer—who's acting like "more than ever like a badly made automaton" after the breakup (27.23)—releases his long-festering frustrations on a young kid and inadvertently sparks a riot. We can only presume that he's killed in the ensuing chaos.
The riot really shakes Tod up. Not only has he just witnessed one of his closest friends being torn to pieces by an angry mob, but he's also seeing his worst fears realized—Los Angeles is indeed burning to the ground. If nothing else, this frightening scene should give Tod the inspiration he'll need to make "The Burning of Los Angeles" the incredible masterwork he believes it to be.
Or not. Do we really think Tod is finally going to take some decisive action? Or will he just go bonkers like everyone else in the novel? West leaves it up to us to decide.