“Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.”
Of all the major metropolitan cities in America, none deserve the misanthrope’s fury more than Los Angeles. After all, what urban area better represents the false promises of contemporary American Dreams than the one that declares you’re special and deserve your own TV show, only to exchange that dangling carrot for a dishwasher’s rag or a chauffeur’s hat? Los Angeles is no stranger to national decay: poor infrastructure, class war, race ghettos, illegal immigration, and economic inequality are some of the more serious problems unlikely to be addressed by a recession-era government more sympathetic to austerity than investment measures. On the other hand, the winters are terrific and even you, you fat slob, can be a star too.
― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
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…”
Day of the Locust
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.Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom. Click To Tweet
West’s Los Angeles is an artifice camouflaging a wasteland. A building is “a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers.” Another one is “a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of Arabian Nights.” On set actors eat “cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall.” In one humorous scene in which Tod traverses the studio looking for Faye, he crosses through great ersatz villages: “The only bit of shade he could find was under am ocean liner made of painted canvas with real life boats hanging from the davits. He stood in its narrow shadow for a while, then went on toward a great forty-foot papier-mâché sphinx that loomed up in the distance. He had to cross a desert to reach it, a desert that was continually being made larger by a fleet of trucks dumping white sand.”
It’s not just background that does not seem quite real. Mrs. Schwartzen, a woman at a party, “had a pretty eighteen-year-old face and a thirty-five-year old neck that was veined and sinewy.” West’s description of Harry Greener, Faye’s father, a lifelong entertainer, is particularly caustic: Harry “was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn’t permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree.”
Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom.This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Click To Tweet “I’m going to be a star someday,” Faye tells Homer when she meets him. “If I’m not, I’ll commit suicide.” The character of Faye Greener is West’s caveat to all the pretty girls in the USA, the tens of thousands who come to Los Angeles every day with absurd celluloid hopes only to wind up financially destitute, physically compromised, spiritually null. The main problem with his warning, of course, is that nice, pretty girls don’t usually read Nathanael West.
If Faye is nuts then the city is an asylum and it’s very hard to tell the patients from the rest. And in modern times with Reality TV, tumblr, American Idol, among other narcissistic apotheoses it’s only getting worse. When West was fuming over the wannabe culture of 1930s Los Angeles, America was still a manufacturing economy rather than an information one. Nowadays, how can a person feel important when he or she does not have a personal wikipedia page explaining our accomplishments just so? Of course, a leisure society can only watch one channel at a time. Worse, fifteen minutes don’t go as long as they did in Andy Warhol’s time. And how are we to feel special in aftermath?
You know a story like The Day of the Locust can only end brutally. Those lacking the megalomaniacal mettle to make it are the story’s most tragic casualties. You know Faye Greener and Tod Hackett will come out of it all right because they’ve got their respective ambitions. Better, they understand that other people are tools that can be picked up, used, and discarded as needed. Someone like Homer Simpson from Iowa, unaccustomed to such cynical posturing, is doomed. Leaving Los Angeles is the only way he can save himself and when he finally attempts to do so, it’s the night of a large movie premier.By this time, Homer has become a pet project for Tod, desperate to do some good deed now that his own moral thread had unraveled. Tod is trying to help a dazed and confused Homer when the monstrous crowd around them surges violently. They are enveloped in its claustrophobic grip, pulled along much like a terrible wave drags the swimmer over gravel. This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves.
West captures the modern man then in crisp, horrific prose: “Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”
The frightening question: From 1939 to 2011, what has really changed? This mob has burned Los Angeles twice, in 1965 and 1992. So long as man is not nourished and loved nor provided with something to nourish and love, he is liable to implode again. It’s not a great stretch. Consumers can only consume so much before they participate in a less constructive fashion.
You could say Nathanael West was a prophet. Or maybe he is one of those people who doesn’t need smoke to spot a fire.