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#73…The Day of the Locust

June 14, 2010

“But either way she would come out all right. Nothing could hurt her. She was like a cork. No matter how rough the sea got, she would go dancing over the same waves that sank iron ships and tore away piers of reinforced concrete. He pictured her riding a tremendous sea. Wave after wave reared its ton on ton of solid water and crashed down only to have her spin gaily away.”

In the celebrity-obsessed society we have become in the last near-century, I am sure today’s movie stars long for the days before paparazzi cameras relentlessly followed them into Starbucks to get their no-fat caramel latte in their sweatpants, or People magazine showed them busting out the cellulite in a too-small bikini on some remote island. I have always struggled to understand how people can wrench enjoyment from watching people’s privacy get invaded, but I think most of us would agree that celebrities exist on a different plane than the rest of us. You make 50 million dollars a movie? You pay the price in other ways. Losing your privacy is just one of them.

For every famous actor or actress in Hollywood, you know there have to be somewhere in the vicinity of hundreds of people who don’t make it, whose only aspiration is to be on TMZ in their underwear. In case you ever wondered what all of these unfortunate wanna-be actors and actresses do in their spare time to keep busy and/or how they cope with their disappointment, Nathanael West helps us out with that in his gritty, macabre novella, The Day of the Locust. West began his career as a novel writer, but when that didn’t work out so well, he turned to Hollywood and screenwriting before his untimely death in 1940. West was therefore in a privileged position to see what happened to those unlucky folks who made it out to the promised land with their dreams in their hands, but then were chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Like West, Tod Hackett is a screenwriter and sometime painter in Hollywood. His particular interest is searching for people who “had come to California to die”–people who came to Hollywood for fame and fortune but didn’t make it and became embittered and angry because of it. Tod wants to paint them into his masterpiece which depicts angry mobs and the burning of Los Angeles. When he’s not out scoping for subjects (and I guess screenwriting, although it’s never really mentioned) Tod hangs out with the wanna-be starlet Faye Greener, whom he secretly dreams of violently raping since she won’t give it up to him. What a class act, right?

Well, in terms of stand-up human beings, Tod’s not alone in Locust. West’s novel overflows with the underbelly of society….dirty, violent, and angry characters, like the belligerent midget Abe Kusich, the cockfighting Mexican Miguel, and the cowboy with suppressed rage, Earle Shoop. All of the men lust after Faye, who sleeps with a couple of them and refuses to sleep with the others. Only one character stands out as somewhat decent; the goodhearted Homer Simpson, who comes to California because of his health, but ends up going crazy after his involvement with Faye and her weird collection of friends. The book ends with starstruck fans lined up at a movie premiere losing it and forming the mob that Tod has envisioned from nearly page one of the book.

This book, to me, was wall-to-wall crap. I have no idea what this book is doing on a list of the 100 best books. It’s too horrible to even be on a list of the 100 worst books. It was dark, dirty and depressing, and I hated every page of it. I hated the cockfighting sequence so much I almost didn’t finish the book (you know how I get with animal cruelty). I cared nothing for any of the characters, even Homer, whose character was the Biggest Doormat of All Time and therefore unworthy of respect or even sympathy. I kept waiting for something important to happen, like someone getting some self-esteem and deciding they needed better friends than that sorry group of people, or getting famous and getting a life, or one of them going psycho and killing everyone, but no one did. I guess I’ve never really been curious about what these wanna-be actors did to keep busy while they were waiting for their big break, or what they did once it became clear their big break would never come. Unfortunately, now I know.

The best thing going for it was that it was a quick read, only 202 pages. All I have to say is, thank God!!! If reading about what happens to people and how they cope after their dreams get crushed underfoot is your thing, you will love this book. I didn’t.

Grade: D-
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