Nathanael West – The Day of the Locust (part 2)

Okay, time to finish the entry from yesterday now that I’ve finished the book.

Several things leap out from the final fifty pages of the novel: first is Homer Simpson’s inevitable downfall.  A man who “lack[s] malleability” (136) is forced to change his life when Faye unexpectedly moves into his home in a cold “business arrangement.”  Both Faye and Homer agree to the arrangement, though Faye seems not at all enthusiastic about recruiting a lawyer to “have papers drawn up” (137)—note the passive voice—to make things official, and Homer seems content to leave the plan to find a lawyer as a plan.  Only Tod sees through it, sarcastically asking Homer when they’re getting married.  Homer fails to see the joke.

Ultimately Homer’s lack of experience with the world is the cause of his downfall, as he fails to understand Faye’s lust, even after catching her having sex with the Mexican Miguel.  When she moves out abruptly the next day, Homer descends into a true kind of madness, speaking to Tod in a way described as “lunatic calm” (168) and insisting on going home to Wayneville.  Though Homer’s fate is left uncertain, he looses control and savagely beats the young boy Adore Loomis who’s just struck him with a rock, before being descended upon by a riot of entertainment seekers.

Another element that leapt out reminded me of something from Miss Lonelyhearts that I overlooked in my previous entry: sexual politics and the acceptance of violence—either including or especially sexual violence—against women.  Miss Lonelyhearts has some rape fantasies concerning Betty when she refused to sleep with him, and it is implied that Shrike only succeeds in sleeping with his wife when he forces her.  In The Day of the Locust, Tod remarks that he wishes he has the courage to club Faye with a bottle and simply rape her.  Sometimes this sort of imagery is so matter-of-fact that it’s hard to see it as anything but a relic from the era, others it’s so over-the-top that it reads as an indictment of that sort of mentality.

A new character, Maybelle Loomis, is introduces as a typical stage mother, “one of that army of women who drag their children from casting office to casting office and sit for hours, weeks, months, waiting for a chance to show what Junior can do” (138).  Her Junior is the aforementioned Adore, whose apparent talents seem to be limited to annoying his mother, ruining his stage clothes, and singing in a faux-blues singer’s raspy delivery.  I read this as the sort of corruption of true culture by white people—and I attempt to inject into this as much loathing as can be injected into the phrase white people by a white man—for their own entertainment.  She’s most disturbing after she calls to her son and Adore runs to her and “tried to kiss his mother, but she fended him off and pulled at his clothes, straightening and arranging them with savage little tugs” (139).  The message is clear: stage and screen mothers are Harlow’s wire monkey mothers, more concerned with their children’s appearance then how much affection they might receive.  Her delusion is also deliciously palpable.

Next we look at Tod’s arrogance: he always takes the authorial view of those around him, critical of even poor Homer Simpson, but yet he himself is just as susceptible to the base temptations of L.A.  He’s as hopelessly in love with Faye—or rather the idea of Faye—as all the other male characters (maybe even more so), and only on page 141 does he really start to examine this and think critically about what this says about him as a person.  How can the man that falls for such a vulgar and obvious performance be a truly reliable source on the vulgarity and obviousness of the constant performance of Los Angelites?  His attempt to separate himself from Faye and Homer is ambivalently successful at best, as when he finds himself in her company again, he begs her to sleep with him.  When she refuses, insisting she doesn’t love him, he reminds her of her brief stint as a callgirl: “You worked for Mrs. Jenning.  Make believe you’re still working for her” (145).  The final time he sees her, the abandoned-then-resumed-cockfight-turned-cocktail-party that I will discuss next, he still nearly falls into temptation, implicitly propositioning her as she goes to bed.

The cockfight/party is the turning point of the novel: all the major characters are present at what was supposed to be a big event except that the opposing cock-breeder (hehehehe) didn’t show up, so what was supposed to be an exciting cockfight turned into a languid sausagefest.  Out of boredom and curiosity, those present pit two of Miguel’s own roosters against each other, pitting one man’s cocks against each other out of boredom.  At the fight’s conclusion, the men are invited into Homer’s house to drink, and their inner beasts are woken by a combination of drinks and Faye’s coquettishness as she dances with Miguel and Earle.  Homer recoils from the proceedings, regressing to the familiar and trying to talk to Tod as “Toddie,” which he explains as being from Wayneville, before going to bed.  The animals tear each other and Homer’s house apart, with the dwarf Abe attacking Earle for not letting him dance with Faye, Tod trying to pull the men apart, and eventually Earle being beaten by Miguel for interrupting his lovemaking with Faye.

Then, like true animals, the men (and Faye) all abandon Homer’s house—with the exception of Tod, who tries to help—after the damage has been done.  I think the obviousness of this passage’s obviousness is truly obvious.

The final thing to discuss is the title: The Day of the Locust.  I believe this refers to the riot that erupts, engulfing Tod and Homer, outside the premier of a movie at Kahn’s Persian Palace Theatre—almost certainly a surrogate for Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.  What starts as a crowd to see celebrities is whipped into a riot by a combination of the police presence and Homer’s attack on the small Adore.  West comments on the type of people in the crowd, describing them as restless for entertainment, waiting to see a violent climax of some sort like in the movies.  “If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a ‘holocaust of flame’ ” (178).  But this entertainment comes rarely, meaning that they become more and more twisted by their anticipation.  “Their boredom becomes more and more terrible.  They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment” (178).

So they make their own climax.  They riot into a swarm of locust people, engulfing Homer, sweeping Tod away and breaking his leg.  Tod witnesses an attempted rape, a young girl crying with her torn bra hanging loose as an “old man, wearing a Panama hat and horn-rimmed glasses, [hugs] her.  He had one of his hands inside her dress and was biting her neck” (182).  The riot gives Tod the final inspiration for his unpainted masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” showing the city’s destruction as its citizens revel in the horror, the “funeral and preview watchers” hooting and hollering, “[n]o longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames” (184).

Not just an indictment of Los Angeles culture, The Day of the Locust is an indictment of celebrity and entertainment culture in general, anticipating the fountain cleaning watchers in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

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