Nathaniel West is perhaps the most important writer that might have been in American literary history. Dead in a car crash at 37 years old and leaving behind only four novels and a handful of B-movies, West had in fact mapped out extensively what his plans were for the rest of his life in his journal, a guide to perhaps the greatest what-if scenario of the 20th century. As it stands, we still have four great novels to enjoy, and the subject of this review, “The Day of the Locust,” is a work that has influenced everyone from Robert Altman to Matt Groening—who named Homer Simpson after one of its main characters.
There is not a ton of plot to speak of here. Recent Yale School of Arts graduate and mentally disturbed artist Tod Hackett is hired by a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s to paint pictures for sets. Mostly ignoring that directive, Hackett spends most of his time looking for the most grotesque, pitiful people he can find and trying to memorize their faces for his masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” While doing this, he falls into violent lust with an aspiring actress, hangs out at cockfights with a dwarf gangster and does not do his job.
This is a deeply strange book, filled with, besides what I have already mentioned, a sadistic child star named Adore Loomis, the world’s worst novelty shop and the saddest death of a clown you will ever read. West’s prose frequently feels like a nightmare from which you cannot escape, a funhouse mirror where everyone hates everyone and the living envy the dead. At the same time, it can be almost devastating in its overwhelming sadness, as in the case of Homer Simpson, whose tale has to be one of the most stellar side plots in fiction. A sad, helpless man in love with the same actress Hackett lusts over, Simpson’s story comes seemingly from a different novel, one that is not as merciless as this, where a man who does not know what to do with his life has a chance to discover exactly that, instead of be torn to pieces in the way Simpson is over the course of 150 pages. Pity him, for West can only be bothered to do so for the expense of his commentary on how diseased Hollywood is.
This is a horrific book but, a valuable one for the archives of American literature. West is a man whose career might have been over too soon, but we have a fantastic, bleak look into the world as it once was and in some respects might still be. The Locust’s Day does not ever come in a literal sense in the novel, but it may still yet be on the horizon. Be ready. Fight it.