Any dream was better than no dream, and beggars couldn’t be choosers.
– Nathanael West, Day of the Locust
Fiction about the darker side of celebrity and pop culture is not exactly new – both the satirical Hollywood novel and its sibling, the bitter Los Angeles novel, have been around at least a hundred years . But few authors have matched the standard set so high by Nathanael West in his pungently brittle The Day of the Locust .
Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister comes close in its similarly gleeful indictment wrapped in a patina of literary elegance, but it doesn’t quite reach the Westian heights. That being said, both Chandler’s and West’s Hollywood is a place where dreams come to die. The various losers, grotesques and other outsiders that populate Locust, waiting at the stop sign of life for their one big break, are first cousins to Chandler’s more attractive if equally flawed Orfamay Quest, Mavis Weld, and Dolores Gonzales.
West himself had a love-hate relationship with the film industry that mirrored his own contradictory nature: both a romantic and cynic; a plagiarist who was also a gifted, original writer; a savage critic of the Hollywood dream who never quite gave up on the dream .
West knew of what he spoke: he toiled as a writer of B scripts and like Locust’s hero Tod Hackett lived in dive hotels and run-down apartments. He knew all too well the labyrinthine mechanics of the movie business and the frustrations of the extras, bit players, assistant directors, and, lowest of all, writers. But mostly he understood the ‘locusts,’ the little people who were drawn to Hollywood, and especially of their potential for violence as a result of their pent-up, barely controlled anger over lack of success in the promised land.
“Magic is what I’m selling”
Tod Hackett, Locust’s hero and arguably a West self-portrait, is one of the few haves in a world of have-nots. A rather high-minded artiste just beginning his career as a set designer, he struggles to come to terms with going Hollywood, and appropriately his opus maximus, created on the sly, is a painterly tableau titled “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Along the way Hackett encounters various seedy and colorful characters, among them an actress neighbor who catches his eye; the actress’s father, a washed-up vaudevillian turned snake oil salesman; and a certain Homer Simpson, onetime accountant convalescing in California’s balmy climate. Monosyllabic cowboys, amorous Mexicans, and a curmudgeonly midget named Abe Kusich add to the mix.
Not many of the characters who populate Locust are likable, even the ostensible good guy Tod. But that was the idea: West wanted to portray the desperate low-lifes and perpetual wannabes existing under the façade of Hollywood glitz and glamour. Unpalatable the little people may be we still feel sympathy for them and this is part of West’s genius.
Like Chandler, West was a master of pure language and Locust teems with gems that roll off his supple pen. In what’s arguably the novel’s most famous passage we get a glimpse of the beautiful but vacuous Faye Greener, B actress and perpetual object of Tod’s desire.
Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes.
He managed to laugh at his language, but it wasn’t a real laugh and nothing was destroyed by it. If she would only let him, he would be glad to throw himself, no matter what the cost. But she wouldn’t have him. She didn’t love him and he couldn’t further her career. She wasn’t sentimental and she had no need for tenderness, even if he were capable of it.
Nearly eight decades on West’s pithy observations and polished style still speak to us in our (post)post-modernist age that’s seen and heard it all. His pitiless description of a world where image is everything and paradise and the apocalypse exist side-by-side is stunningly spot-on. Moreover, his phantasmagoric vision of a commodified culture populated by natural food buffs, prostitution rings, shameless hucksters, quack doctors, soulless executives, aforementioned losers and castoffs, and cult religions like the Tabernacle of the Third Coming is remarkably prescient and strikes close to home .
Thus we have the final great set piece which concludes the novel – the mob riot at, significantly, a Hollywood première – combining as it does elements of religious frenzy and political extremism (the then-recent Nuremberg rallies may have been an inspiration). Reading The Day of the Locust makes us realize the Last Days may well be upon us, but the consolation is that they can be vastly entertaining.
Alas, West didn’t live to see his greatest novel become the cult favorite it is today. He died in 1940 at the age of thirty-seven, with his wife, in an automobile collision while returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico. One version is that he got careless because he was hurrying back for the funeral of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had died the previous day, on Dec. 21, 1940. Other sources say that West was just a lousy driver. Whatever the explanation, in the space of two days, in the same city, America lost two of its best authors. The legend of Hollywood as a place that ate writers for breakfast was becoming all too true.
 Anthony Slide, The Hollywood Novel: A Critical Guide to Over 1200 Works with Film-related Themes or Characters, 1912 through 1994, McFarland, 1995; Nancy Brooker-Bowers, The Hollywood Novel and Other Novels about Film, 1912-1982 : An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1985.
 With Locust, West anticipated anti-Hollywood movies like Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, and Sunset Boulevard which appeared a decade later.
 In 1939, the year West’s bitterly skeptical Locust was published, the film industry was at the peak of its cultural, economic, and creative power. Once again West’s contrarian vision was uncannily on the mark: the next decade was a downhill slide for the movie business from which the old studio system never recovered, all chronicled so deliciously in Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets.
I leave to others to sort out the political implications of West’s cultural critique. For two takes see: Jonathan Veitch, American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s, Univ. of Wisconsin Pr., 1997; Mathew Roberts, “Bonfire of the avant-garde: cultural rage and readerly complicity in The Day of the Locust,” Modern Fiction Studies v42 n1 (Spring 1996), pp. 61-90.
 In its portrayal of a world gone wrong, Locust also anticipates the dystopian fiction so popular in our own time.
Further reading: Movie Tourist: The Day of the Locust; Nathanael West and the writing of The Day of the Locust; The View from the Upper Circle (review); Thomas Reed Whissen, Classic Cult Fiction, Greenwood, 1992, pp. 68-73.