The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

When I think of the Great Depression, I tend to think of either Grapes of Wrath or soup kitchen lines in long ago New York. I don’t tend to think of Hollywood, though it certainly existed at the time and was certainly part of what that time meant for the people of the country. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West is going to change that for me somewhat, as well as possibly change how I see many people’s dreams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Connelly.)

In The Day of the Locust we have a painter, Tod Hackett, who has come to Hollywood to design sets, though he is constantly planning and never actually working on a painting that will show what Hollywood taught him about the nature of people. He falls in love with a hard-nosed girl who is dead set (clearly hopelessly) on being a star, but several other men do as well…including a very naïve man from the Midwest who is almost certainly doomed to be hurt. Of course, the poor Midwesterner eventually is.

We don’t really see the studio powerhouses in The Day of the Locust, the stars. We see all the ordinary mass of humanity who move to Hollywood with great dreams…dreams they have no real hope of fulfilling:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon….It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sign. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

We know from the very beginning that the characters aren’t going to end well. However, people still dream. Along the course of the book, West comes to some conclusions about those dreams:

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a “holocaust of flame,” as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…..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.

I’ve seen books that focus on the sleazy side of Hollywood before, but never quite like West’s take. Most look at the underbelly of the glamor, but West looks for the mass humanity that never even gets to the glamor. It simply was never there for them.

In reflecting on that situation in The Day of the Locust, West manages some interesting insights on how much of what we dream never really exists. There is disillusionment, but unlike the norm it only comes to the most hopelessly naive because the rest didn’t even get to have many illusions.

Not only is Hollywood not paved with gold, it isn’t even a trick of light. Even that was only rumor.

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