Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #73

Title: The Day of the Locust
Author: Nathanael West
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: I actually like this pulpy cover more than I like the book itself, although the cover is a bit misleading (the event in the picture never actually takes place)-- I was under the impression, mainly because of the cover, that this was a disaster novel. Yeah, not so much.

Thoughts: There's a belief, possibly the only opinion shared by both New York intellectuals and Midwestern evangelicals, that Hollywood is the dark, twisted counterpoint to the American dream, a whirling cesspool of evil (unlike the healthy stew bubbling away in New York's melting-pot). Nathanael West is surely the progenitor of this viewpoint. The Day of the Locust is easily the ugliest book I've ever read, a sour, black-hearted, apocalyptic vision of mankind at its worst.

The novel, told mainly from the perspective of Tod Hackett, a studio art director, centers around Faye Greener, a beautiful but hard girl whose unabashed sexuality attracts a crowd of low-life admirers. Tod falls for Faye, as does Homer Simpson, a gawky hotel clerk from Iowa who traveled west for his health; Earle, a handsome but poor cowboy who works part-time as an extra; and Miguel, Earle's Mexican roommate. Faye wields her body as a weapon to propel her ever closer to stardom, and her unattainability only fuels the men's fires. As the denouement approaches, the lust and debauchery around Faye increases until nothing is left but utter destruction.

Faye is a stand-in for Hollywood itself, all surface and no substance, the post child for the allure of artificiality. West's Hollywood is filled with creatures like Faye-- dissipated degenerates on the fringe of society who spend their sweaty-palmed coins on the cheap thrills of whorehouses, bars, and cockfights. These residents, who flocked to California in droves in the hopes of a better life, found nothing but disappointment and disillusionment waiting for them, and when they move together en masse, they become a dangerous mob devoid of all humanity.

This novel is particularly nasty-- the terms "slut" and "fairy" are tossed around frequently, the main character on more than one occasion is preoccupied with the idea of rape, and each character is described with a searing contempt. I found it very similar to Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary, in which Puerto Rico's outsiders drink themselves into total collapse. The prose is fairly lively and interesting, but the viewpoint is so toxic that unless you're an incredibly pessimistic person looking for your worldview to be confirmed, you probably won't enjoy this book too much.

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