Saturday, January 29, 2011

Just Out Of Hand's Reach, The Day Of The Locust Presents Lust In Early Hollywood!

The Good: Well-written, Great sense of detail, Moments of interesting character development
The Bad: Largely underdeveloped characters, Nothing so much happens in terms of plot.
The Basics: A worthwhile Modernist novel, but hardly one that is a great character study, The Day Of The Locust adequately explores Hollywood in symbol and metaphor.

How many books did you read in high school that when you see on a shelf as an adult, you think, "Oh, I'd really like to read that again!?" My local library is gearing up for its annual book sale and I was lightening my bookshelves after a divorce and move, so when I saw a copy of Nathanael West's The Day Of The Locust on the shelf, I decided to ask the people running the book sale if I could swap one of my ex-'s paperbacks for the long-out-of-print book they were offering for a quarter. They said "sure" and I felt pretty good about that.

So, for the first time in thirteen or more years, I've been able to read The Day Of The Locust and I'm not exactly sure why I was so interested in it back in high school when I read it as part of a Modern Literature class that was one of the seminal courses in my late high school education. This is not to say that Nathanael West's portrait of early Hollywood culture is uninteresting or pointless, but, well, it is kind of pointless. I mean, I "got" things about the book and the protagonist, Tod Hackett, that I am pretty sure went over my head when I read it back in the day. Still, this was not the greatest work of American Literature and ultimately, my recommendation of The Day Of The Locust has more to do with the overall sophistication of the undertones of the work and the way it did well what so many tried afterward, which was to expose the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and the film industry.

Tod Hackett is an artist who works on a Hollywood backlot where he works as a set and costume designer as part of his art education. His mind is preoccupied with a giant painting he has been envisioning entitled “The Burning Of Los Angeles" and with his neighbor in the San Bernardino Arms whom he lusts for. Initially reluctant to take up residence in the dive that is San Berno, he is instantly captivated by Faye Greener, an aspiring actress.

Faye is indifferent to Tod, refusing to be more than his friend because he cannot advance her potential career in Hollywood. She is the daughter of an aging vaudevillian, Harry. To get to Faye, Tod befriends Harry who soon falls seriously ill and Tod has the opportunity to listen to his many stories. As Tod sits at his bed, he witnesses Faye's other suitors, the painfully shy dolt Homer Simpson and the faux-cowboy Earl Shoop. As Tod's lust for Faye grows, Harry's health fails and soon he finds himself in a position to make a move on Faye, only to discover the lengths she will go to for stardom.

First off, yes, The Day Of The Locust has Homer Simpson from about fifty years before Matthew Groening used the name. Ironically, West's Homer Simpson has much in common with television's Homer Simpson. Homer in this novel is shy and nonthreatening, but it is his rage that leads to the novel's ultimate resolution. He is taken advantage of by Faye following Harry's death and in many ways he is a pitiable character. He has giant hands which express all of the sexuality and frustration that the character is unable to play out any other way due to a convoluted sense of sexual mores that are never quite explained. Homer Simpson seems unwilling to tempt fate by succumbing to sexual desire and as a result, he finds himself frustrated and his hands become much more expressive and active than the rest of him ever dares to be.

On the other hand, Tod Hackett is essentially a rapist-in-waiting. His fantasies for Faye all trend toward the dark and he imagines planning to rape her and exactly how it would go (ironically, in one scene while he is out at restaurant and is continually interrupted by a waiter). Hackett has a very real - if inappropriate - lust and he makes for a wonderful foil character to the chaste and undesiring Homer Simpson. As well, Tod has a genuine sense of sadness for the way others take advantage of Homer and he tries to treat him well, despite losing his temper with Simpson from time to time.

The thing is, there are huge portions of the novel where Tod is utterly unlikable. He is not villainous in any recognizable way, but rather he is disturbingly presented as a man waiting for the right opportunity to satisfy himself on a wannabe starlet. What makes him at all worthwhile is the ultimate resolution of his character's arc. I won't ruin the end of the book, but it is in the last few pages that Tod Hackett becomes likable again and it is worth sticking it out for.

That said, The Day Of The Locust is essentially an expose into the sex and violence of Hollywood. Tod obsesses on one wannabe in a sea of unseen movie stars who would seem to be just as desirable, but are never mentioned. Instead, the focus keeps the novel perfectly tuned to the evolution from the violence of vaudeville under comic pretenses into the very real violence that is illustrated on film. This is often presented in the form of a farce, like when the actors in a film about Waterloo charge up a poorly-constructed set hill and collapse it resulting in a charge much like Napoleon's. West explores the irony of the extras enjoying such a calamity to pick up a bonus paycheck from their wounds.

That is the type of humor that pervades The Day Of The Locust. The type of violence encapsulated in this portrayal of early Hollywood includes a cockfight that is described in gruesome detail; it's hard for the reader not to flinch when the poor big red's upper beak is torn off by the more agile younger bird. Where The Day Of The Locust succeeds is in its comparison between things like the outright violence of the cockfight with the resulting violence when Homer walks in on the Mexican, Earl and Faye. Viewed metaphorically, West is certainly making a comment on the eroding threshold of tolerance humans have toward violence as a result of their entertainment.

But above all, what The Day Of The Locust has is a pretty amazing expression of the loneliness of the individual in the false worlds we create around ourselves. Homer Simpson is crippled by his loneliness and while it is never made explicit, Tod is similarly unable to deal with reality due to his own sense of loneliness. That overwhelming sense of ennui and dissociation from other people, the sense of alienation that pervades all of the characters, resonates on each page of The Day Of The Locust. Perhaps that is why I was so eager to read the book again when I saw the spine at the library sale and perhaps that is why it took me more than a decade to even try tracking down the book.

Alienation is not at all a theme alien to the Modernists and The Day Of The Locust does it remarkably well, right up with the likes of Hemmingway, Faulkner and Ellison. Unfortunately, though, it's also harder to get behind West's vision of the alienated Hollywood types because it is an alienation we created and the characters choose to live in as opposed to the other novelists', whose work carries something a bit more universal.

For other Modernist works reviewed by me, please check out:
Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
William Faulkner - The Sound And The Fury
Ernest Hemmingway - A Movable Feast


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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