What’s amazing is that it has always been like this and when we think of golden era yesterdays, it’s probably because we haven’t read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. First published in 1939, the novel presents a world that seems to have changed little in seventy years: Prom Queens from Ohio slinging sex appeal at shitty Sunset Strip bars for tips and whose days’ highlight is some drunk with a money clip saying, “Hey, you look like that movie star…”
Nathahael West knew the type. He worked in Hollywood as a scenario writer on B-movie scripts because nobody would read his books (the 1930s was a golden era of literary luminaries slumming for the studios— among West’s drinking buddies were F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner). When a novelist makes ten times the money writing knucklehead dialogue than he is able to make with his personal work, it’s probably a given he might bite the hand that feeds him but in West’s case, he lunges for the groin and castrates the beast mercilessly.
The Day of the Locust is a story of outcasts, losers, and never-wills, centered generally on an apartment called the San Bernardino Arms, and specifically on a femme fatale blonde named Faye Greener, a wannabe starlet obsessed with fame, raised by a vaudevillian father. Members of her coterie include an Ivy League artist working as an illustrator for the studios named Tod Hackett, a profane dwarf named Abe Kusich, a taciturn rodeo cowboy named Earle Shoop, his Mexican sidekick, Miguel, and finally, Homer Simpson, a shy, feckless newcomer from small-town Iowa too innocent to survive a city as culturally psychotic as Los Angeles.Because he is educated in arts and culture Tod Hackett can see through the social veneer. For all the sunshine and apparent opportunity, many of the people on the street “were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.” Tod is inspired by these failures that “had come to California to die.” To his studio peers he seems the mild-mannered type but he’s working secretly on his masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a large painting about an apocalyptic fire that consumes the city. Tod doesn’t have to travel very far in Hollywood to find ruined souls perfect as subject matter.
Meanwhile, he lusts madly for Faye. Although he understands what Faye is after and that she would sell her soul in a second for matinee idolatry, he obsesses over her nonetheless. Flirtatiously, she uses him when she needs him but never lets him through the threshold as “he had nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her. Tod was a ‘good-hearted man,’ and she liked ‘good-hearted men,’ but only as friends.” But perhaps he’s not as “good-hearted” as she was led to believe because her games aggravate Tod so much he gets to the point that he wishes he “had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” Disney fare, this ain’t.
The other major figure in Faye’s life is Homer, who takes care of her after her father dies. Homer is generous, ingenuous, stupid, empty: “whether he was happy or not is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither.” Tod hates the way Faye uses him, spending his money and having him put up her lovers, Earl and Miguel and their cockfighting birds in the garage. But he doesn’t feel much sympathy for Homer, mostly because Hollywood life and all its artifice seems to have numbed his capacity for true human warmth.