Sunday, September 14, 2014

THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, 3 stars and a bumfuzzled headscratch


New Directions (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: The Day of the Locust is a novel about Hollywood and its corrupting touch, about the American dream turned into a sun-drenched California nightmare. Nathaniel West's Hollywood is not the glamorous "home of the stars" but a seedy world of little people, some hopeful, some desparing, all twisted by their by their own desires—from the ironically romantic artist narrator to a macho movie cowboy, a middle-aged innocent from America's heartland, and the hard-as-nails call girl would-be-star whom they all lust after. An unforgettable portrayal of a world that mocks the real and rewards the sham, turns its back on love to plunge into empty sex, and breeds a savage violence that is its own undoing, this novel stands as a classic indictment of all that is most extravagant and uncontrolled in American life.

My Review: First, read this:
It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

Sad. Yes, that's it, I feel sad. This is a classic of Hollywood literature, I can even sort of see that, but it's as bleak as they come and it's all told, very little shown, at very crucial points. If this is a novel, I'm at a loss to see how; it's some biting character studies glued together by accidents of geography. To me it reads more like a treatment that had to be abandoned, was too dear to West's heart-shaped ice cube, and instead got its B12 shots, 50,000 volts, and liiiiiived.

So Tod (Death in German, get it?) HACKett (movie hanger-on, usu. a writer, get it?) falls for the vapidity that is bleached-blonde Faye Greener, as does poor rube-a-licious Homer Simpson (!!), as does no-bit extra Earle Shoop...I suspect, from some of Faye's father's mannerisms, that he and Faye got up to the badger game a time or two. What in the name of common sense is the appeal?! She's hard as nails, not terribly bright, and unbelievably self-centered. I couldn't abide her from the moment West put this in her mouth:
“I'm going to be a star some day," she announced as though daring him to contradict her.

"I'm sure you..."

"It's my life. It's the only thing in the whole world that I want."

"It's good to know what you want. I used to be a bookkeeper in a hotel,

"If I'm not, I'll commit suicide.”
That wasn't fresh and new in 1939, either. I agree that this person exists in her legions at every doorway to stardom, but Faye doesn't rise above that generic feel at any turn. After each encounter with Faye, particularly the après-cockfight cocktail party and its aftermath, I want to ask West, "...AND?! What is it, why are these men so hot-to-trot for this trollop?" He's dead these eighty-plus years, so he won't answer even if I shout, so I'm left bewildered.

Homer Simpson, apparently the lovable loser who gave cartoonist Matt Groening the name for his well-over-a-quarter-century old cartoon oaf, is the most realistic and fully drawn character in the piece. In creating Homer, West has fully focused our attention on him and relegated narrator Tod to the Nick Carraway position as he focuses on Homer and his back-story, his sad and empty existence (the part about the deck chair and the view is one of the best an most telling character tics West ladles on to Homer), and his doom (in the original Celtic meaning of Bha so an dàn duit, this was destined for thee). Homer tries and misses, tries and misses again, tries.... He's never, ever the fun guy or the sweet guy, he's the useful but horrendously annoying guy with the car and the cards.
Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears. When they finish, they feel better. But to those without hope, whose anguish is basic and permanent, no good comes from crying. Nothing changes for them. They usually know this, but still can’t help crying.
His passion for the cipher Faye comes to its absolutely clearly telegraphed and inevitable conclusion, Tod twitters and flails ineffectually to interfere with it, and in the end it drives both Tod and Homer into the climactic ending of the book:
Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. 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, war. 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.
And this at last wove the book together for me, made the preceding ~200pp make some sense to me. This is West's cri de coueur and shout to the gods that Prometheus is back to make trouble again.

A year later he was dead. Hm.

There is no smallest question that West can craft some lovely sentences and some incisive character sketches. He can hang all them on a plot of sorts and make your readerly curiousity bump itch so bad you have to scratch it with his tyrannosaurus-armed stories, even at the risk of running afoul of the brute's severing teeth. But here, in this book, the alchemy that elevates Miss Lonelyhearts to the cold and glittering glory of Everest's heights settles instead into the weirder, less pristine shape of Kilimanjaro: Feet in the humid heat, midsection arid and weirdly populated with things not seen elsewhere, and then the transcendent snowy glory of the ending.

Some years back, my real-life book circle read What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. Sammy Glick, he of the title, is a character I can't forget and find myself thinking about. Sammy's is a story of hustle and flow, make and do and create...Tod never does one damned thing in this book except chase Faye and wander around. Yet which of these two books has been made into a movie? Not the solid, excellent What Makes Sammy Run?, no sirree, but this collection of grotesques gets made. In a weird sort of way, The Day of the Locust feels to me like a precursor to the viciously cuttingly unfunny humor of A Confederacy of Dunces. Both are utterly of a place, can't be told against the backdrop of any other place, and are pitilessly clear of vision. Both are the best-remembered works by their early-dead authors. And each is, taken on its own merits, marvelous parts in search of a gestalt to animate into more than some wonderful, memorable set-pieces embedded in perfunctory plotlike matrices.

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