By Nathanel WEst.
167 pages
New York: The Reading Program Special Editions, 1965 (from 1939 original).

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2003

The novel is set in Hollywood in 1939. Most of the characters are in some way related to the film industry, however, they are mainly lowly figures, bit actors, extras, and other sorts of hangers-on. Nathanael West emphasizes the less than glorious lives these folks lead, scratching out a living in hard times.

The main character is Tod Hackett. He’s one of the more privileged of the characters. He is by love and intention a serious painter. However, he can’t make a living at painting so he’s come to Hollywood to draw sets, earning a decent living and allowing him to paint on the side. There is also Abe Kusich, a dwarf who works films now and again, Harry Greener, sick and dying, a former comic and clown and Claude Estee, a screen-writer who is fairly successful. Other characters are sort of lower level folks who surround these people.

At the center of the novel along with Tod, is Faye Greener, Harry’s daughter. Stunningly beautiful and sexy, she has great hopes of breaking into the films and has her sights set on becoming a major star. Tod, Homer Simpson, (that is REALLY the character’s name in this 1939 novel!) who is in California for his health, and cowboy Earle Sharp are all in love with Faye. She, however, can only love a man who is either very handsome (Earle nearly fills the bill) or very rich, none of them come close to that.

The novel isn’t as much of a story as it is a picture of what this echelon of people face in life, and an expose that life in Hollywood for the masses of its employees is far from the glamorous life pictured in the newspapers. Only three “known” figures are even mentioned in the novel, and those in single sentences in passing – Mae West, Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.

The characters of the novel were not people I think I would really like or want to be friends with. They weren’t really bad people, but just not terribly interesting or attractive. What is fascinating in West’s treatment of them is his lack of JUDGING them. He just presents them. I think he reveals to us readers his own strategy in writing the novel when he has Tod comment at one point of how he would paint a group of people he sees.

Tod has stopped into one of the many churches that are doing exotic religious services. He tries to imagine how some of the Italian masters whom he admires would paint them. But he allows that were he, Tod, to paint them, he would not take strong positions on them, he would simply be neutral and PRESENT them as they are. He would accept them and respect them. I think that’s exactly how West treats the characters. He careful paints them in words and deeds, and doesn’t seem to have a single judgment to make. He doesn’t excuse them on the basis of their pasts; he doesn’t condemn them for dumb or mean things, he doesn’t praise their successes. He just presents them to us without comment. He has Tod tell us of the religious service:

As he watched these people writhe on the hard seats of their churches, he thought of how well Alessandro Magnasco would dramatize the contrast between their drained- out, feeble bodies and their wild, disordered minds. He would not satirize them as Hogarth or Daumier might, nor would he pity them. He would paint their fury with respect, appreciating its awful, anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.

I did very much enjoy that decision of Nathanael West to treat the characters in that neutral manner.

The ending of the novel did put me off. After just following these characters long enough to give us a serious sense of their lives, he stages what I guess is the “day of the locust” of the title. A new blockbuster film is about to open and thousands of fans have turned out at the theater to see the celebrities arrive. Masses of police are on hand, but things get out of hand and a near riot occurs. West then, in a most improbably manner, has Tod and Homer Simpson end up in the midst of it, Homer committing an act of brutality that just doesn’t really fit his character.

Nathanael West only wrote four novels and this one was the last and most famous. He wasn’t much read in his own time and only became a sort of dark cult figure in the 1960s. I had read his MISS LONELIHEARTS many years ago, and while it was scandalously erotic and counter-cultural, I wasn’t terribly impressed by it. Now, going back to West for this, his critically most acclaimed book, I’m just not convinced he is a literary figure of the first rank.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett