Time Reading Program: The Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust

Cover art by Bill Berry

The Day of the Locust is widely considered one of Nathanael West’s best novels and a classic, along with his other great novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. When you’ve only published four novels and two are lauded, those are excellent statistics.

The Day of the Locust is a rather bleak satire of Hollywood in the 1930s. The main character, Tod, is an artist who comes to LA for inspiration for his next painting. He meets a series of oddball characters, many of whom are more interesting, to my mind, than he is. Many of the characters have come to California from other parts of the country, and we are repeatedly told that they have “come to California to die.” These people Tod meets are strange, grotesque stereotypes — a boisterous dwarf, an aging vaudevillian conman and his pretty but “loose” aspiring actress daughter, a slow talking, stiff cowboy, and a plodding, obsessive/compulsive man. They are all B-grade movie characters — awkward, strange, and often repellent. All the men are attracted to Faye, the aspiring actress, and Tod has rape fantasies about her. These scenes were extremely unsettling. At the end of the book, Faye takes off, leaving all the men to disperse, and Tod is caught in a mob crush at a movie premier. This final scene is harrowing — the crowd is described as “demonic.” Tod barely escapes with his life and the novel abruptly ends.

One character really stood out from the rest both because of how odd he was and also because such a large chunk was given to his description. Homer Simpson is the plodding, almost simpleminded man who has a weird obsession with his hands. He views his hands and alive and separate from his body:

Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it.  When he was a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them in the fire. Now he only used cold water.

One day while opening a can of salmon for lunch, his thumb received a nasty cut. Although the wound must have hurt, the calm, slightly querulous expression he usually wore did not change. The wounded hand writhed about on the kitchen table until it was carried to the sink by its mate and bathed tenderly in hot water.

There are many references to art and artists in the book. Tod, the painter, references Daumier and Goya who both were satirical painters. Homer is described as physically sculptural except for his odd hands. Tod wanders through a movie lot that unfolds in stage after stage of surreal and artificial landscapes.

I can’t say that I liked this novel, but I did find the characterization very interesting, especially Homer. In some ways the writing reminded me of Yoko Ogawa’s writing — the characters and events are disagreeable, even downright weird, but they are compelling. The novel is not driven by narrative. Instead, Locust is a book is more of an art piece, a series of vignettes, revealing the emptiness of Hollywood, its lifestyle, and its seekers. It’s rather an ugly book, but the kind you can’t look away from.

The cover of the Time Reading Program book was credited to Bill Berry. It took me a bit to learn more about Berry as his formal name is William A. Berry. Berry was a wonderful artist — his nude drawings are superb. This was one of the first TRP books that I snagged because I loved the cover. It seems much darker and purposefully uglier now that I have finished the book. As I read, I kept seeing the blond trapped in the center as Faye.

A few lines I marked:

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

Through a slit in the blue sky poked a grained moon that looked like an enormous bone button.

Raging at him, she was still beautiful. That was because her beauty was structural like a tree’s, not a quality of her mind or heart. 

copyright 1939 by estate of Nathanael West
copyright 1965 reprint by Time Incorporated

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