"Mr. Greener, the bedraggled Harlequin of our caption, is not bedraggled but clean, neat and sweet when he first comes on. By the time the Lings, four muscular Orientals, finish with him, however, he is plenty bedraggled. He is tattered and bloody, but still sweet… His is the final victory; the applause is for him.”
So, a very quick plot summary before the review proper: The Day of the Locust is set in the early years of film, when Hollywood was expanding, moving from talkies to sound, from melodrama to drama, from cultural barometer to cultural thermostat. The novel follows several characters, each pitiful in their own way: Tod Hackett, an aspiring artist who longs to paint Hollywood as it really is; Faye Greener, an aspiring actress who spreads her love, among other things; Homer Simpson, a socially-awkward recluse, in Hollywood for his health, dragged against his will into love with Faye; and an assortment of Hollywood extra types, including the cowboy, the singing child star, the comedian, the oily agent, etc. The narrative is loose, but not flabby—the book is a slim 120pp—and as the lives of these characters intersect, things happen, mostly awful things.
The Day of the Locust is a harrowing read. Once every 10 or so pages, there’s a passage that hits like a kick to the stomach. If it were possible, it would be tempting to read certain bits with eyes closed, cowering beneath a blanket. The characters are not lovable, not light, and their adventures, such as they are, reveal more despair than joy. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a single joyous moment in the entire novel. Tod is a would-be rapist, would-be in a way that makes his inability to follow through almost worse than if he did. Faye is a heartless harpie, cruel to the ones who care for her, desperate for attention and unable to quit acting even when her father dies. Homer is a pitiful cipher: we are told that some men can lust after things and control them, but others, like Homer, must not allow such thoughts—they are like a spark in a field of dry hay. Indeed, that turns out to be true.
There is no glamour in West’s depiction of Hollywood. The stars exist on a different plane from our struggling “heroes”—Gary Cooper is spotted late in the novel, near but completely uninvolved in a major riot—and there are no happy endings. Every single character does despicable things, when they do anything at all. In an amazingly disturbing description of a cockfight late in the novel, West summarizes his character’s motivations in the cruelest way possible.
I know I haven’t said much about the specifics, but they’re devastating. The Day of the Locust is depressing, eerie and affecting in its depiction of humanity without grace, mercy, or hope. It’s beautiful the same way as a mushroom cloud.