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Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust

In this novel, West takes his views on the grotesque nature of US society to Hollywood. Tod Hackett is a would-be painter but works painting backdrops and scenery for films. He is in love with the seventeen-year old Faye Greener, an aspiring actress, who lives in the apartment below his, with her father, Harry, a former vaudevillian. The pair of them do a con trick, involving Harry falling ill. Though Tod is in love with Faye, she has several suitors, including an innocent Midwesterner, called Homer Simpson, a name later used for the creation of the cartoon character. Faye meets Homer when she and her father are trying to con him. Tod is planning a painting called The Burning of Los Angeles and this develops throughout the book, featuring a sexually alluring Faye, surrounded by an angry mob. Tod becomes friendly with various Hollywood oddities, including a dwarf and a cowboy and what he calls those who are about to die, who will appear in his painting. When Faye’s father dies, she moves in with Homer, who keeps her in clothes, but she is not exactly faithful. Homer eventually decides to return home to Iowa, when he learns about her behaviour, and sets off, walking past a movie premiere. When he gets in an altercation with a boy and tries to attack him, the crowd turns on Homer. Tod tries to rescue Homer but cannot and, instead, thinks of his painting and how the mob scene will fit into it.

This is not only West’s best book, it takes his view of the grotesque nature of US society to a new level. Peopled with marginal characters, from Tod to all the various denizens of Hollywood, with the self-absorbed Faye at the centre, it is a brilliant portrait of a Hollywood which, for West, represents society as a whole, where people go to die, and where dreams are definitely not realised.

Publishing history

First published 1939 by Random House