Welcome to Hollywood circa 1939, the land of the ones with dead eyes who wander the sunny streets and frequent the gaudy hotels while on the prowl for the decaying dream of Mae West, Shirley Temple, and Clark Gable.
Meet Tod Hackett, the narrator and painter who does work for one of the many studios in tinsel town. Like too many people, Tod came out to Hollywood to make some money and it big. So far, he’s hacking it. He likes to keep a distance from most people and he has a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles” that he works on to keep sane.
Meet Faye Greener, Tod’s object of defection. She dreams of being in pictures and she’s forever read for her close-up, Mr. DeMille. Faye lives with her father, Harry, who sells overpriced, homemade polish to get into strangers’ houses and force them to watch his once-reviewed clown act. He’s a failed actor. One of Tod’s few successful friends is Claude, a screenwriter. Tod’s last friend is an arrogant dwarf.
Tod’s problems are Earle, a tall, handsome cowboy who Faye thinks is just dandy, and Earle’s henchman, a Mexican and a dedicated cock fighter who knows how to dirty dance.
“Go West, young man.”
Nathanael West died in a car accident in 1940, at the age of thirty-seven. The legend is that he was rushing to get to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral.
Although not much appreciated in his lifetime, West’s novels began to gain recognition in the fifties. Today he is well regarded — The Day of the Locust appears on the Modern Library’s list of best novels as well as on Time magazine’s recent Top 100 — and considered a permanent part of America’s literary canon, but many people still don’t take warmly to his manic, modernist style.
I think West is one of the best writers I’ve read. His novels are short, inelegant and yet logical — in an Animaniacs kind of way. They’re crammed with ideas, witticisms, observations, and un-hackneyed emotion. They take big themes and express them through small, larger-than-life characters. They don’t preach.
One of the important characters in the novel is named Homer Simpson. I’m not sure if the Matt Groening had him in mind when creating the The Simpsons, but there are a few similarities between West’s book and the television show: both Homer Simpson characters are dumb, good-natured oafs; both have the peculiar quality of always being out of their elements; and both the novel and the cartoon have a sardonic, incisive flavour of funny.
Love is a Four-Letter Word
Whatever love may be, in West’s degenerated Hollywood, it’s quite simple. It’s often expressed as a fantasy, in a cheap restaurant, and alone. Sometimes the waiter interferes and there’s no climax; other times it works just swell.
If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.
That’s Tod speaking. He’s the hero of the novel. He’s just being honest. And West, he’s just being cynical, brutal and honest — like always.
West, the Prophet
The most astounding thing about The Day of the Locust is how visionary it is. West, in his infinite sarcasm, predicts so much of the perversity and grotesqueness of our world that it’s a shame he isn’t here to see it. I’m sure he’d share a grin, a nod, and a chuckle.
Do Scientologists Dream of Electric Sheep?
He spent his nights at the different Hollywood churches, drawing the worshippers. He visited the “Church of the Christ, Physical” where holiness was attained through the constant use of chestweights and spring grips; the “Church Invisible” where fortunes were told and the dead made to find lost objects; The “Tabernacle of the Third Coming” where a woman in male clothing preached the “Crusade Against Salt”; and the “Temple Moderne” under whose glass and chromium roof “Brain-Breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs” was taught.
In the “Church of the Christ, Physical” and the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming” we have our gyms and our diet plans, our bony women and our steroidal men. We have equality and we have happiness and we have less carbs. We’ve thrown away our fruit and our salt for shakes and pills. We have a new god, and it is I. Don’t Scientologists have the neatest pools?
In the “Church Invisible” we have the liars and the scammers; the Billy Grahams and the Benny Hinns. We have the suits with secret connections to gods who charge $1.99 a minute. I’ll give you five dollars more if you talk to my dead grandmother and tell her I love her.
In the “Temple Moderne” we have Eastern mysticism practiced by the Beatles. We have New Age stores selling soap that washes clean our karma, at half off the regular price. Shop at Neon Jesus; save a tree.
West published The Day of the Locust in 1939. Hitler had already come to power, Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia, and Lenin had bamboozled Russia with three empty words: Peace Bread Land. Leni Riefenstahl had made Triumph of the Will, D.W. Griffith had made The Birth of a Nation, and Stalin had starved millions in the Ukraine without anyone making a film.
West wasn’t short of inspiration on tyrants.
Tod didn’t laugh at the man’s rhetoric. He knew it was unimportant. What mattered were his messianic rage and the emotional response of his hearers. They sprang to their feet, shaking their fists and shouting. On the altar someone began to beat a bass drum and soon the entire congregation was singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
So, perhaps, in this instance, West wasn’t so much a visionary as he was just aware and astute. Perhaps his ideas don’t apply as neatly to our contemporary, enlightened times as they did to the dark pre-WWII days when he wrote them.
But, could there still be some sliver of wisdom to be gained, and some foresight to be dug out of West?
After all, the Soviets were atheistic, and the fascists only tolerated the Church because they had to. West’s was a world of battling ideologies, not one of fighting religions. Wasn’t it we who resurrected those?
Isn’t it our preacher who speaks in tongues, our President who speaks not even in one, and our Jesus who campaigns Republican? And isn’t it our Allah who rewards us for exploding ourselves into crowds in the name of our illiterate Mullah?
Let us draw fresh blood for the altar.
Hit My Baby, One More Time
Somewhere in the middle of The Day of the Locust we meet Adore, an eight-year old boy, and his ambitious, greedy mother.
Adore’s mother is convinced that her son has “talent”, and will one day break into show business. Would it not be a sin to not do her utmost — look what she’s sacrificed to give her boy the chance she couldn’t have — to foster his talents and get them noticed by all the important people who notice fostered talent? Wouldn’t she be a cruel mother if she didn’t push him into performing like a monkey to a music box? It’d be a waste, for sure, and no one likes squanderers.
It’s only natural, then, that she’d force Adore to perform for the pleasure of two strange men, Tod and Homer.
His shoulders twitched as though they already felt the strap. He tilted his straw sailor over one eye, buttoned up his jacket and did a little strut, then began:
“Mama doan wan’ no peas
An’ rice, an’ cocoanut oil,
Just a bottle of brandy handy all the day.
Mama doan wan’ no peas,
Mama doan wan’ no cocoanut oil.”
His singing voice was deep and rough and he used the broken groan of the blues singer quite expertly. He moved his body only a little, against rather than in time with the music. The gestures he made with his hands were extremely suggestive.
“Mama doan wan’t no gin,
Because gin do make her sin,
Mama doan wan’ no glass of gin,
Because it boun’ to make her sin,
An’ keep her hot and bothered all the day.”
He seemed to know what the words meant, or at least his body and his voice seemed to know. When he came to the final chorus, his buttocks writhed and his voice carried a top-heavy load of sexual pain.
I don’t think this passage needs a long explanation. If there’s one thing Nathanael West nailed in The Day of the Locust, it was a young, nubile Britney Spears.
Other examples: Milla Jovovich started modelling at age nine, with support from her manager-mother. Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff were made into sex symbols before they were sixteen. Venus Williams started playing tennis at age four and was coached by her father. Michael Jackson.
Hitchcock referred to them as the “moron masses”. They were the ones who went to his films; the ones he manipulated.
In The Day of the Locust, they are the ones who pay to watch Adore sing and dance, who attend the “Church of the Christ, Physical”, and who cheer and stomp their feet at the firebrand speaker.
They were the ones Tod wanted to paint as the marauding crowd in his painting — “The Burning of Los Angeles”. However, he would paint them in a special way.
He would not satirize them as Hogarth or Daumier might, nor would he pity them. He would paint their fury with respect, appreciating its awful, anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.
It’s possible to argue that Nathanael West takes the same position about his characters. It’s been said that one of the greatest strengths of The Day of the Locust is precisely this quality. I disagree.
I look at West as an excellent prosecutor. He’s not the judge (us) or the jury (the critics). All he can do is try to convince us that his argument is the valid one; that his clients are guilty. The decision is ultimately up to us, but West’s evidence and presentation is so staggering that there is only one decision. The question of the innocence of his characters doesn’t come up. He presents and we judge, “guilty”.
And that is what makes The Day of the Locust a masterpiece. It’s a splendidly, imaginatively, and concisely presented prosecution.
Civilization has not been destroyed. Los Angeles has not burned. But, I think, the entire world is simmering — just a little bit.
Rating: 4.0 / 4.0Powered by Sidelines