The year 1939, when Europe was going up in flames and America clung to the hope that it need not become part of a world at war, turned out to be a miracle moment for Los Angeles fiction, seeing the publication of “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, John Fante’s “Ask The Dust,” and “The Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West (the latter just reissued in a new edition, along with “Miss Lonelyhearts,” by New Directions, $11.95), three books that distilled distinctly and in very different ways the city that was being written about, and have continued to dictate how Los Angeles is perceived today.
Chandler reconfigured the noir map in a style still to be bettered and Fante’s bildungsroman showed a young man struggling in a dark, sunlit world that he nonetheless contrived to possess, but West’s book is the most merciless of the three, reflecting the anger, disappointment and violence that bubble and simmer beneath the city’s welcoming and glassy surface. The idea of Los Angeles as a site for apocalypse was already prevalent in the 1930s (Myron Brinig’s forgotten “The Flutter of an Eyelid” concludes with the city shearing away from the coastal shelf and cascading into the Pacific,) but West crystallized it.
The protagonist of “The Day of the Locust” is Tod Hackett, a young graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts who gets spotted by a talent scout and brought out to Hollywood to learn set and costume design. By day Tod toils at the studio and plans “The Burning of Los Angeles,” the vast canvas he aspires to paint. By night and on weekends he lives in a shabby apartment house and lusts after his neighbor Faye Greener, an aspiring young actress of little talent and astounding beauty, though her looks are an invitation not “to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love.” Tod knows that he has little to offer Faye, “neither money nor looks,” and knows too that Faye’s yearning for stardom is a pipe dream. In her sole movie role, as a dancing girl in a harem, she “had only one line to speak, ‘Oh, Mr Smith!,’ and spoke it badly.”
Faye is the hot stuff, the sexually radioactive yet already decayed core around which this almost eerily dispassionate novel weaves itself. Yet West in no way condemns her; her dreams and her looks are so powerful that she turns her own life into the movie in which she already fears she’ll never star. She’s a desperate one-woman reality show.
Through Faye, Tod meets her father, Harry Greener, a vaudeville clown turned con man, and Earle Shoop, the inarticulate cowboy who comes on like Gary Cooper but whose job consists of posing outside a saddlery store on Sunset Boulevard. Faye knows that Earle is a dull fool, but “then said that he was ‘criminally handsome,’ an expression she had picked up in the chatter column of a trade paper.” Earle is Tod’s chief rival for Faye’s attention, along with Homer Simpson (!), a former bookkeeper from Des Moines who blows his modest savings to become Faye’s patron.
Homer is like one of those Midwesterners described in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Louis Adamic, a writer West admired. Homer has come to Los Angeles, not to succeed, but to warm his skin and get ready to die: “When not keeping house, he sat in the back yard, called the patio by the real estate agent, in an old broken deck chair. He went out to it immediately after breakfast to bake himself in the sun. In one of the closets he had found a tattered book and he held it in his lap without looking at it.” Homer spends a lot of time watching a lizard try to catch flies. “But whether he was happy or not it is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither. He had memories to disturb him, and a plant hasn’t, but after the first bad night his memories were quiet.”
One of West’s subjects is how Los Angeles erases memory, replacing it with sensations that inscribe themselves on the mind like vivid nightmares, only to be immediately forgotten. In his discovery and exploration of this trope, West prefigures the nonfiction writing of Mike Davis and Norman Klein. “The Day of the Locust” is more journalistic than its searing surrealism might at first suggest. West (born Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein in New York in 1903) came to Hollywood in 1933, after Darryl Zanuck bought the rights to his novel “Miss Lonelyhearts.” For years he toiled, writing treatments and B-movie scripts, living, like Tod Hackett, in rundown digs. He met con men and cops, prostitutes and failed vaudevillians. He hung out at the Hollywood police precincts and went to cockfights at Pismo Beach. He explored brothels, upscale and otherwise. He became a flâneur of the city’s underbelly, holding court at Musso and Frank’s restaurant or the Stanley Rose Bookstore, and beginning to feed all these characters and experiences into a novel he planned at first (according to his biographer Jay Martin) to call “The Cheated.”
Yet “The Day of the Locust” doesn’t read like displaced autobiography. It unspools in a series of tableaux (a night out with Faye and Earl, a grotesque funeral, a shambolic cast-of-thousands disaster at the studio, a ghastly party and an even ghastlier cockfight, the movie premiere riot with which the tale shatteringly concludes) that reflect a gathering sense of physical, spiritual and political extremity. West etches a desolate vision that magically leaves the reader feeling exhilarated.
Los Angeles has been the subject of, and setting for, many fine novels, yet “The Day of the Locust” still feels like the single best-achieved, and most oracular, piece of fiction the city has inspired. West wanted to show the dump behind the dream, and he did it in spades; but he proved too that L.A. could be the seedbed of high art. Tod Hackett’s epic dream painting becomes a metaphor for what West actually did achieve.
“He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun and therefore appear less fearful, more like bright flags flying from roofs and windows than a terrible holocaust. He wanted the city to have a gala air as it burned, to appear almost gay. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.”
“West died at thirty-seven, with his wife, in an automobile collision while returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico,” writes Jonathan Lethem in his introduction to this new edition. West had not noticed a red light, or had noticed it too late and was traveling too fast and hit an oncoming car. Some said that he was hurrying back for the funeral of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had died the previous day, on Dec. 21, 1940. That may or may not be true, but West was an awful driver and liked to daydream at the wheel, and so America lost two of its best, within 24 hours, within a couple of hundred miles of one another. The legend about what Los Angeles and Hollywood would do to writers began to loom large.
-- Richard Rayner