Sunday, August 23, 2015

On "Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West *****

One of the best Hollywood novels of all time, reads a few of the reviews of this classic book. I'd call the book Hollywood gothic, and of West's body of work, it probably is my favorite, despite my liking for the aesthetic experiments in his other famous work Miss Lonelyhearts. This one feels like more of a narrative, and the characters are a bit more fully realized and drawn out.

West's main character is an aspiring artist named Tod Hacket (get it, a hack) who has come to Hollywood to do backdrops and other art needed for the studios. In his spare time, he thinks about drawing the dead--that is, a Los Angeles that is on fire and burning, because Hollywood, as the narrator puts it, is where people go to die.

Death here could mean any number of things. It could mean the death of morality--a kind of moral vacuum that people enter into when going into the movies. It could mean death of meaning (religion, art). It could mean a death of a the soul.

Death, in fact, pervades the book. Tod is in love with Faye Greener (the name suggesting life of a sort, I suppose--or at least "life" in comparison to others). But a lot of other men are into Faye as well (in this respect, she reminded me of Brett in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises but of a lower class and less intelligent sort). She won't have the men--or at least not Tod. He's not rich or successful, so he can't advance her career--she's an aspiring actress. Despite this, Tod befriends her father Henry so as to spend more time around her. Tod's a rather sad aspiring beau.

Henry is an old Vaudeville hand who is literally dying.

Among Faye's other suitors are Homer Simpson, an older man who has some money from before he moved to Hollywood and who agrees to take care of Faye after her father's death (in an arrangement wholly benefiting Faye not unlike Tod's); Earle, a fake cowboy whose dates with Faye Tod pays for; a dwarf; and a Mexican.

A scene I remember from earlier readings is one involving a cock fight. Simpson's property is used for the contest, even though he disapproves, since it is Faye's friends who insist on it. The fight is gruesome, as one chicken takes care of another--and here there seems a parallel to the bullfight in The Sun Also Rises. In fact, one could almost look at the novel as being a kind of parody of Hemingway's work, since what is high brow there is now reduced to low brow. Instead of army veterans and drunks we have fake army soldiers and drunks, just as instead of regal bullfights we have cheap cockfights.

At the end of the novel, we get a kind of living fulfillment of Tod's imagined painting as a mob devolves into violence.

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