The Booky Man: Of Mice and Locusts, Nathanael West

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Indulge yourself. Savor for one short moment one of the great opening scenes in literature.

It’s the beginning of the novel The Day of The Locust.

Booky Man reader, Hurrah for Hollywood! Hurrah for Babylon!

Hurrah for you. You’ve just marched with this fake Hollywood army into the pages of one of the blackest, most cynical … and most necessary … of all the books written about our so-called American Dream.

The author of The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, was born Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein in the upper-middle class upper West Side of New York City, about as far from Hollywood as you can travel without plunging into the Atlantic.

After a dodgy college experience at Tufts University and Brown, West went west … out to Los Angeles, like Faulkner and Fitzgerald and many other literary worthies, to try his hand at making some big money as part of the dream-maker machinery behind the popular movies.

What West encountered during that adventure – and who he ran into – fueled a sardonic, bleak work that stands as an important reality check – a counterweight – to every vapid puff of cosmetic illusion a studio in Hollywood ever produced.

West never earned much money or reputation in his lifetime, but he did earn a few literary friends. He died young in a car accident in 1940 on his way to the funeral of one of those friends, the vastly more celebrated and today better-remembered writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But West’s reputation, like Vincent Van Gogh’s, grew after his accident, his own personal day of the locust. The curious book title, by the way, was most drawn from the Old Testament, where pharaohs and prophets alike endured apocalyptic invasions of ravening, uncontrollable insect hordes, a symbol West felt applicable to his portrayal of Depression-Era Hollywood.

The Dream Factory has an underside, you see, a seething, gritty limbo populated by grifters, drunks, hookers and madmen, all these drawn like ravaging creatures to the bright-light allure of the movies, of Tinseltown.

Who are they, these losers in the great celebrity lottery? They’re the people in the words Hal David wrote to Burt Bacharach’s tune 1970s tune, “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” Dionne Warwick famously sang these words, which pretty much sum up characters from The Day of the Locust. Here are those lyrics:

In The Day of The Locust, these stars that never was turn tricks to pay for a father’s funeral, or pimp out their young children to Hollywood directors in a desperate attempt to turn them into the newest Shirley Temple, the next Macaulay Culkin. They sleep on bare ground among weeds and broken bottles in the canyons, or gather for entertainment around bloody cockfights in garages off Hollywood Boulevard.

West sets his novel in 1939, the same period that writers named John – Dos Passos and Steinbeck – were giving us their own gritty underbelly masterpieces. Dos Passos’s and Steinbeck’s drifters are displaced by dust storms from the Midwest, or by crippling poverty from the South. They roll toward the setting sun, looking for a lucky break – California, here we come! And somehow, despite the terrible lives and trials they must face to survive, they cling to their dreams.

The characters who come to Nathanael West’s version of Hollywood, on the other hand, are drawn by a false dream altogether – an American Dream corrupted by phoniness and greed and depravity. Nobody ‘makes it’ in a Nathanael West novel. There’s no ‘It’ to make – the dream itself, the big-star, big-shot, big-money Big Dream, is as fake as the sets that hilariously collapse in Locust around the fighting British and French armies on the sound-stage for the Battle of Waterloo.

Our hero, or what passes for one, is Tod Hackett, an East Coast, Yale-educated great-painter wannabee who moves to a grungy little apartment just off Hollywood Boulevard. Tod works designing sets and painting backdrops for one of the studios, but at home he’s working on a masterpiece – an apocalyptic painting called The Burning of Los Angeles. Tod begins to paint his L.A. friends into the work, stylistically shifting from the fat red barns and sturdy Nantucket fishermen of his early work to the grotesquerie of Goya and Daumier.

How else could he paint the cast and crew surrounding him? There’s a savagely belligerent dwarf; a ravishing 17-year-old coquette with her slowly dying ex-Vaudeville-clown father. There’s a decent old man named Homer Simpson – no, not that Homer Simpson – Matt Groening named his cartoon Homer after his own father. This Homer Simpson is a decent old man terribly but willingly exploited by the starlet wannabee … an old loser too needy and besotted by love to stand up for himself. There’s a lean, “criminally handsome” cowpoke and his cockfighting Mexican friend.

The careless and cruel savagery this ensemble deals one to the other is the whole novel. You’ll want to pop a double blood-pressure pill by the time you put the short work down, the final pages burning in your hand like the city of Los Angeles on Doomsday.

To know, Nathanael West was greatly influenced by Oscar Wilde. Tod Hackett’s closeted artwork, in fact, becomes much like the portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s book of that name. Tod means the painting to show the true state of the soul of the city of angels, a landscape of riot and apocalypse and flames that foreshadows Locust’s ending – a riot at a Hollywood movie premiere, thousands of people going violently wild like fighting cocks, all because someone yells “Look! There’s Gary Cooper!”

There’s no Gary Cooper. High Noon is High Midnight here, and the disturbing violence flares from people who spend better hours sitting in the dark, mesmerized by images on big screens. With the premiere, they’ve come to see their beloved movie stars in person. But who have they come to see – what, really? Apparitions on a screen. Fake smiles, fake teeth, fake makeup, fake wigs, fake heroes.

Late in this book, West writes this of the masses who depend on Hollywood for their entertainment. For their dreams.

West could write with great satirical daring and humor. For instance, in his first published book, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, he invented the story of a flea, named St. Puce, who writes a famous geography after traveling over the body of Christ. And black humor surfaces at times in The Day of the Locust – you just shake your head in dismay at one scene when the Mexican house guest picks up a dwarf by his legs, like two handles, and dashes his truculent, yelling head against a wall.

But this isn’t, in the end, a comic novel. It takes no prisoners. Any idea you might have of dreamy Hollywood, that Oz on a hill, the peaceable kingdom of people with perfect teeth and shiny-dime eyes, all singing, all dancing … well, Nathanael West pretty much picks that vision of Hollywood up by its short little legs and dashes its head against a wall too.

There’s no ride off into the sunset at the end of The Day of the Locust.

That sunset, up close, looks a lot like an American Dream in flames. A dream burning fast and furious, the way tinsel burns, leaving cold and bitter ashes.

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