BkFt: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust was published in 1939 and is set in Hollywood during the great depression. The Day of the Locust

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. (GoodReads)

It seems that The Day of the Locust tackles the time shown to us in The Great Gatsby except from the perspective of those who were truly impacted by the economic crisis, the other side of the coin, because although I would think those were times of austerity the characters of The Great Gatsby seemed little affected by it financially.  The Guardian article, The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, glamorously grotesque, talks about how we can draw parallels between today’s situation and that of The Day of the Locust and this quote from it describing the novel shows that not all experienced those times as Gatsby and his hanger-oners did:

“Here is a society that has generated its own grotesqueness, through a twofold process of alienation: the pre-crash boom has made strangers of all who didn’t share in the green glow of dollar bills, while the exclusive hierarchy of Hollywood makes outsiders of the rest.”

The original title for this work was apparently The Cheated and that leads you to wonder why choose The Day of the Locust.  Probably the most famous reference to the locust comes from the bible when a plague of locusts is sent to Egypt and subsequently destroys their entire food supply.  Wikipedia quotes Susan Sanderson’s take on why she thinks the locust is used in the title of this novel:

West’s use of “locust” in his title evokes images of destruction and a land stripped bare of anything green and living. The novel is filled with images of destruction: Tod Hackett’s painting entitled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” his violent fantasies about Faye and the bloody result of the cockfight. A close examination of West’s characters and his selective use of natural images, which include representations of violence and impotence — and which are therefore contrary to popular images linking nature and fertility — reveals that the locust in the title is Tod.

This paints a pretty clear picture of what you can expect from this book.  An interesting detail is that one of the characters in this novel is called Homer Simpson, the lonely businessman exploited by leading lady Faye Greener, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is said to have stated in a number of interviews that he named his most famous character, Homer Simpson, after West’s character.  I found that interesting.

Robert, from 101 Books who’s reading his way through the list, wrote about his views on the novel  here which I think is well worth reading.  He said:

At least in regards to the other books on the list, The Day of the Locust is unique in its setting—1930s Hollywood. The loose story follows the sad lives of an artist named Tod Hackett, a part-time bit actress, part-time prostitute, an angry dwarf, a Mexican cockfighting ringleader, a sad pathetic sack named Homer Simpson, and several other Hollywood outcasts.

You read that correctly. The story does indeed feature an angry dwarf, a cockfighting ring, and a depressing old pervert named Homer Simpson—yes, Homer Simpson.

Nathanael West drops you into the middle of this mess of characters without much context. You stay with them for a little while, and then the story ends and you’re pulled right out again. The novel moves linearly for the most part, but there’s no tightly wound plot here. The Day of the Locust is more of a character study than anything else.

If you’ve read this book let me know what you thought.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Day of the Locust

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