Book Review: “The Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West

Hello everyone! This is something that’s probably a bit different from what you would normally see on a classic movies blog: a book review! I’m huge on reading and I do love discussing the books I read. However, no one in my family likes to read and seeing as they literally will not pick up a book even if their lives depended on it, they probably wouldn’t care or understand if I expound happily on what I am reading. So these kinds of posts will serve as a discussion outlet for me and something interesting for you if you are a reader, too. However for this blog, I will only discuss books that pertain to classic movie history, just so I can stick to my theme.

West_locustToday I’ll be writing about Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, a short, disturbing little novel about the moral decay of Hollywood. I originally picked it up because a play that I was interested in was based off of it. However, I live in New York, the play was in London, and by the time I started planning my trip across the pond, the show closed. I was so disappointed that I gave up on the London trip altogether and threw the book on my shelf, unread. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I decided to pick it up again.

West, a New Yorker, published the novel in 1939, which was interestingly enough considering the book’s subject matter, a paramount year in the history of film. In 1933 and throughout the mid-1930s, West left New York and moved to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter for Columbia. While he was there he struggled financially, writing mostly B-grade film scripts. His experiences in Hollywood were what led him to write Locust, and have also served to lend much color and background for the work.

Locust centers around Tod Hackett, a young Yale art school graduate vying for a career in set design. Eager to make his dreams a reality, he moves to the City of Angels, rents a furnished room, and hopes his $30 a week job will bloom into something greater. He is in love with his neighbor Faye Greener, a 17 year-old platinum blonde wannabe actress hoping to make a splash in front of the camera. Faye works as an extra on numerous films looking for her big break. Even though she has the youth, the looks, and the body for a stellar Hollywood career, she lacks the talent. Her father Harry is an ex-clown and vaudevillian who also came to Hollywood hoping to make it big in silent film comedies a la Chaplin and Keaton. Even though Harry likes Tod and invites him to the Greener home often, Tod still cannot get Faye to give him the time of day. Faye runs around with other suitors and strings men along, much to Tod’s chagrin. Among them are Homer Simpson (yeah, you read that right) a shy, painfully awkward man in his mid-40s who moves to California to improve his health; Earle Shoop, a broke, fake cowboy who hopes to become the next Gary Cooper, and Miguel, Earle’s best friend who breeds roosters for fighting. After Harry dies, Faye experiences a moral downfall and takes all the boys down with her. The story can end in only one way: blood and insanity.

One of West’s trademarks were keeping things short and snappy, this novel included. Seeing as it was less than 150 pages, I thought I could knock it out in two days tops. However, it dragged on a good four or five days for me. Despite its shortness, it was so heavy and just…strange that I had to constantly put it down and not think about it for awhile. Every two pages or so required a break, which is really odd for me. Years of English literature classes have trained me into reading books objectively and parsing them for meaning without having to really mull over things for too long. If something gets too disturbing I can usually step back and remind myself that it’s just a story, without letting it get to my head. However, with Locust, it bothered me to such an extent that I was filled with an ill sense of foreboding whenever I picked it up. I know that the author most likely intended for it to be this way since this is a sort of apocalyptic work, but I don’t like getting affected by anything really! I’m team No Feelings.

Locust is an interesting work because it so effectively makes glittery Hollywood look like an ugly land of decay. I always saw Old Hollywood as a fertile, creative time period when the film industry was growing exponentially and discovering new techniques every day. Just think of all the advancements that came out of that period: talking pictures, Technicolor, improvements in film quality, the creation of new genres such as the screwball comedy, the invention of animated films, the rise of the movie star as a god/goddess figure, the construction of film palaces around the country, and the list goes on and on. Despite all this, there are symbols of decay and violence on practically every page of this novel. West’s characters are all misfits chasing the elusive American Dream, only to fail like so many others. The desperation for fame and big money are strong, and the longing to escape bleak Depression-era conditions creates a tense, ugly atmosphere. You can feel something broiling underneath all the superficial Hollywood layers.

Karen Black as Faye Greener in the 1975 film adaptation.
Karen Black as Faye Greener in the 1975 film adaptation.

To West, Hollywood didn’t symbolize creativity; instead it was a place where “all Americans go to die,” a phrase he used often in the novel. The futility of chasing a sham idea in a place where so many seek it only leads to moral and spiritual decay in West’s viewpoint. Violence is practically aching to be let loose, and the foreshadowing to the crazy mob riot at the end (sorry guys, I don’t know how to write a full review on something without spoiling it) is everywhere: Tod’s painting “The Burning of Los Angeles,” which is exactly what it sounds like, Faye’s emotional and physical abuse of Homer, Tod’s desire to rape Faye, the fighting that breaks out between Earle and Miguel over Faye, the constant fighting and beating in general, the allusion to the Old Testament plague of the locusts in the novel’s title, the failed Battle of Waterloo film scene, and the prolonged cock-fight scene which, for me, was the most depressing and disturbing scene of the whole novel. All of this culminates in an over-the-top scene of extreme mob violence during a movie premiere, which begins when a young child star named Adore Loomis maliciously teases Homer and throws a stone at his face. Homer, now insane after Faye abandons him, loses control and literally stomps the kid to death, which leads to the mob killing Homer. Tod tries to pull Homer away from Adore, but to no avail. Tod is brutally beaten in the fray as well and witnesses scenes of murder and rape on the streets. Basically, Hollywood caves in upon itself and its denizens destroy each other. Eventually, Tod goes insane himself and is arrested.

West’s novel also very subtly alludes to the poisonous stench of commercialism in American culture. What place is more commercialized than Hollywood, even today? West, a Socialist, linked the rise in commercialism and capitalism to a decline in individualism and the death of the free-thinking man.

The mob scene as depicted on a cover of "The Day of the Locust."
The mob scene as depicted on a cover of “The Day of the Locust.”

All of the characters in Locust are vapid, shallow, and boring. They’re shells of people, people who are acting even in their everyday lives. Most of them are particularly malicious, such as Faye, Adore Loomis, and Miguel. It’s just…ugh, what a chilling little book. It led poet W.H. Auden to coin the term “West’s Disease,” which is used to allude to moral and spiritual depravity. Dashiell Hammett also referred to the novel as the “Hollywood we need to talk about” or something along those lines, and it’s true. Hundreds of thousands of weary Americans trekked out to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. When I was touring Paramount Studios back in 2011, the guide said that hundreds of desperate people would sleep outside the studio gates, hoping for a day’s work as an extra. I’m sure the same occurred at all the Hollywood studios during the Depression years. It’s a grim outlook, one we don’t think about at all when we see the glamour of 1930’s films.

Overall, The Day of the Locust was an interesting work, but somehow it left a sour taste in my mouth. I give it 3 out 5 stars.

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