Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Day of the Locust (1939)

I must say it was a little distracting to return to Nathanael West's great novel for the first time since the '70s and encounter a schlubby character named Homer Simpson (he was played by Donald Sutherland in the 1975 movie directed by John Schlesinger, which is not to be missed). The mystery deepens as it appears Matt Groening has pointed to it as one source of his cartoon character's name. Yeah, right. It was also hard to get an image out of my mind from Jonathan Lethem's introduction, pointing out the vertical lines of West's Miss Lonelyhearts, set in New York City in the early '30s, and the horizontal lines of The Day of the Locust, set in Los Angeles in the late '30s. Finally, just to give some indication of how fully packed this little novel is, the biblical locust story is wrapped in to pretty much every single incident of the action, and in many ways explains everything in this strange litany of episode: the landscape is blighted and dead many different ways, not least in the psychic dimension, overrun by soulless feeding lost people, the late arrivals and still pouring in to Southern California's paradise. Between the time of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, one of the most devastating environmental disasters in American history deepened to catastrophic levels, with the advance of the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck of course has one vision of the aftermath in The Grapes of Wrath. West has another here—one that is much closer to (yet infinitely intensifies) Horace McCoy's 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a companion novel to The Day of the Locust if ever there was one. By the time the streak of violence in West's novel has erupted into a closely described cock fight and finally explodes into a riot in Hollywood for glimpses of the attending stars at a movie premiere, there is a kind of satisfaction that occurs, a fitting resolution to the burden of dread and anxiety and anomie we live with on a daily basis. It's realistic too, in terms of the beneficial side of catharsis, which after all may be unpleasant in the actual moment but ultimately cleansing, so cleansing. The Day of the Locust is packed full of random incidents, but the elements linger and cohere, chillingly, long after the book has been put down.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Thanks for reviewing both Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day Of The Locust this past week, Jeff. I read both books and saw the Locust movie, all in the 1970's, or at least well before The Simpsons debuted, as I didn't remark on the "Homer Simpson" character's name at the time. (To add to the mystery of that handle's origins, if you drive west on Bramble Av. in Cincinnati's Madisonville neighborhood, first you encounter a cross street named "Homer Av.," and then the very next block is "Simpson Av." -- I'm not making this up, I live near the scene of the rhyme, have viewed it many times. Could be Matt Groening owes the Cincinnati Public Works Dept. some royalties too.)

    I've never forgotten how both amusing & degrading it is for Miss Lonelyhearts to be called only by his pen name whatever he does, it's like West could see our Social Media people-as-brands universe coming seventy years ahead of time. As luck would have it, when I reorganized my library this week, I ran across my New Directions paperback containing both Nathanael West titles we've just discussed, so I can see some good re-reading ahead.

    Best, Anon. (None dare call it Richard Riegel.)

  2. Thanks Richard. Something really prescient about both of them, in different ways. I remember that New Directions paperback well.

  3. Mulholland Drive. I'll bet Lynch loves West's books.