The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Have you ever heard of Nathanael West? His novel The Day of the Locust is number 73 on Modern Library’s list of the best 100 novels of all time. Otherwise, I might never have heard of him either. And ironically- at one time in his life- he lived a mere 15 minutes from my home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
West had the potential to become a great classic author. Unfortunately, he died in a car crash in 1940 at the age of 37 after having published just a few short novels. The Day of the Locust is a novella depicting life in Hollywood in the 1930s. West moved to Hollywood to be a screenwriter… and although some of the scenes seem quite absurd, he did write based on his own personal observations. This is not the story of celebrities enjoying the glitz and glamour of success. It is a novel of bleak realism.
The protagonist of The Day of the Locust is Tod Hackett- an artist who designs and paints stage settings. He pessimistically concludes that most people came to California to die. If they came to Hollywood thinking they would make a living in show business, they soon found life to be an unending struggle. If they did achieve success, living in the fast lane could prove to be fatal… literally. And if they came to Hollywood for any other reason, they soon found their lives entwined with wanna-be actresses, homeless moochers, part-time bit-part actors who spent most of their time loitering on the street looking for a little action to fill their boring days. In Hollywood it was easy to lose oneself in the superficial facade of make-believe and die a slow spiritual and emotional death.
The character development in The Day of the Locust is amazing. There is an old retired vaudeville actor- Harry Greener- whose comedy routines reminded me of the Marx Brothers. Harry is trying to make a living selling silver polish door-to-door. He incorporates some of his inane vaudeville schtick into his sales pitch. His daughter Faye is one of Hollywood’s many would-be actresses- both beautiful and determined- but with mediocre talent, so it is an uphill battle and she has to prostitute herself to make ends meet. On the darker side, there is a Mexican who makes his money on taking bets for cock fights. He’s got a crate full of fighting fowl and doesn’t mind setting up in anyones garage for a good night of entertainment.
During the short period of time this novella takes place, Tod becomes infatuated with Faye along with several other lecherous followers. The odd thing about The Day of the Locust is after a series of events that capture the imagination and peak the readers curiosity, there is an absurd dramatic scene of chaos and an abrupt ending. Like a still life photo- in that one final moment- time is suspended. The story ended before I was ready to stop reading. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions which has a haunting effect.
This 2013 edition book cover is deceptive. It leads one to believe James Cagney starred in the movie. The Day of the Locust was made into a movie in 1975 starring William Atherton and Karen Black. However, I did visualized it more as being a black and white film of the 1930s… a sensational hit that might have actually starred Cagney and Greta Garbo or Joan Blondell.
Rated 5 Stars May, 2016
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