The Day of the Locust ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Day of the Locust ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Nathanael West’s classic American novel, The Day of the Locust, was first published in 1939. It’s set in 1933 in Hollywood, California, and is about the seedy underside of Hollywood (no glamour and glitz here) and the “people who go to California to die.” Nearly everybody who lives in Hollywood has gone there from some other part of the country.

Tod Hackett works in a movie studio as an artist. We don’t get a clear notion of exactly what he does, but he seems to “conceptualize” movies on paper before they are made. Like a lot of other people in Hollywood, he hopes to be a big success. When he meets Faye Greener, he is taken with her, as a lot of other men are. Faye is only seventeen years old but old beyond her years. She calls herself a movie actress but has only ever appeared as an “extra.” She is more of a floozy than anything else and doesn’t mind working as a whore if it’s the only way she can get money.

Faye lives with and takes care of her father, Harry Greener. He is an alcoholic bum, a broken-down vaudevillian who makes furniture polish in his own home and then goes around selling it to unwitting customers. Times are hard. He remains a performer, though, and will do his vaudeville schtick when compelled to do so. Harry provides a lot of the comic relief in the novel.

Tod continues to pine for Faye, but he is a smart young man and sees that it is hopeless. She is just a superficial flake who will never be seriously true to anybody. When she meets a strange, older man named Homer Simpson, she latches on to him because he lives in his own house and encourages her in her hopeless acting career. After Harry dies, she moves in with Homer. Tod is jealous at first, but after he sees how Faye flits around from man to man indiscriminately, he seems to change his opinion and becomes ambivalent toward her.

And then there is Adore, the androgynous child actor who is a neighbor of Homer Simpson’s. Adore has a “stage mother” and is a rising child star in Hollywood. At the conclusion of the novel, Adore meets a tragic and violent end at the hands of Homer Simpson.

Nathanael West (1903-1940) had a spare writing style that might almost be called minimalist. He didn’t waste space or words. The Day of the Locust is a decidedly pessimistic view of Hollywood and the human race. The concluding scene in the novel takes place outside a Hollywood movie premiere, where an unruly mob demonstrates the worst of human nature. People are as mindless and swarming as a plague of locusts.

A memorable 1975 movie version of The Day of the Locust starred a 36-year-old Karen Black playing seventeen-year-old Faye Greener and Burgess Meredith playing her father.  Why is it never shown on television? I for one would love to see it again after these many years.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

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