Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Signet Classics; Reissue edition (September 6, 1983)
  • Price: $6.95
  • ISBN-10: 0451523482
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451523488

If there is one test that tries all equally, it is the test of time. What is merely a statement of a fad, or a passing whim, quickly fades away. What lasts, thick and thin, good times and bad, passing through fashion and invention and change, proves itself worthy. So has Nathanael West's short novel, The Day of the Locust, passed its test of time. Written in and about the 1930s, it is a portrait of the most superficial of places: Hollywood. And, aside from progress in computerized special effects and the ever quickening turnaround of superstar marriages and divorces, what has changed about this town and its culture? Ah, nothing. The superficial reigns.

West calls to stage a most colorful array of, some might say, "freaks." But perhaps that is too harsh. These are misfits and fantasizers and wildly hopefuls. There is the actress part-timing as a prostitute, the cowboy without a ranch, the drunken dwarf, the lonely and geekish hotel bookkeeper in stupid devotion to the actress who never quite knows what to do with his immense hands, the screenwriter with a rubber horse in his swimming pool, the obnoxious and precocious child star, and a string of other unusuals that, in Hollywood, are all too usual. Their backdrops and scenarios are no less so: cockfights and porn flick screenings, questionable deaths, business schemes based on anatomy overthinking brain. It's all here. And West handles it all like a fine juggling act, never dropping the ball.

His grand finale is indeed grand. It is what brings to mind the locust. This seething insect that acts en masse and without thinking, following just to follow, stampeding and destroying all in its ravenous path, yet not without eruptions of the grotesque.

Perhaps what makes this all so moving is that Hollywood brings to spotlight what, after all, exists everywhere. Only here it is the stuff of which movies are made. Or, in this case, a masterly piece of fine literature.

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