Post Road Magazine #25

THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West

Lucinda Rosenfeld

The Day of the Locust—Nathanael West's atmospheric novel of 1933—is a quick, disturbing, and unrelentingly depressing read. It's also haunting in ways that few longer works are. It was West's genius to write a novel about Hollywood that makes only passing mention of the actual movie industry and its stars. Instead, the book focuses on the peripheral players—the extras, freaks, hookers, hangers-on, and circus acts who come to town in search of fame and fortune. Though West himself seems to see things differently. In his own words—by my count, repeated three times—the book's main concern is those who "had come to California to die." It follows that the pivotal scenes in The Day of the Locust don't even take place in Hollywood, but in the still-wild terrain of the canyons outside LA.

West's narrator/stand-in is Tod, a classic hard-drinking foil/straightman. (Think Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.) A Yale graduate, he finds himself doing set design at one of the studios. While living in a run-down apartment building, he falls in unrequited love with one of its residents: a beautiful and brittle young blonde name Faye. Convinced she's going to be a star, Faye demonstrates no compunction as she first prostitutes herself to pay for her swindling clown father's funeral, then takes financial advantage of a lonely and pathetic simpleton named Homer Simpson. But even as Tod begins to see how ruthless and soulless Faye is, his obsession builds. So does his sexual frustration, which culminates in a rape fantasy that forms one of the book's many shockingly violent set pieces. These pieces include the almost hard-to-read cock fight in Homer Simpson's garage, where a nasty dwarf, a cowboy extra, and a Mexican mystery man named Miguel fight to the death through their feathered proxies. The scene is among the most disturbing in the book, equaled only by the funeral scene for Faye's father, in which the mourners leave early, having received word that a real movie star has been spotted on the street. In both cases, West's moody yet straightforward prose is a perfect match for the grotesqueries on display.

Through all these sordid tableaus, West seems to be implying that Hollywood is, above all, an agent of destruction—not just literally, in terms of its own sets and props, discarded after filming is through, but in terms of the ruined dreams of those who get too close to its fire. But The Day of the Locust is not a message book a-la John Steinbeck. It's much more impressionistic than that. To my mind, the most stunning line of the novel is the one that follows the cock fight: "Tod passed the whiskey." The language itself is not particularly interesting, but timing is everything in writing. And the fact that it follows the cock fight and occupies its own paragraph make its coldness that much more chilling. It seems that, over his many months in Hollywood, our hero, Tod, has become no better than his callous, hollow-eyed friends. The revelation is somehow devastating.

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