Published in 1939, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust is a harsh, satirical take on Hollywood–what West calls a “dream dump”–and the poor souls who languish there. Todd Hackett is a fresh-faced, Ivy League schooled artist lured out to California by a talent scout to illustrate costumes and sets for the movies. As is often the case in Hollywood, the deal is a Faustian one. Hackett’s sensitive nature and artistic temperament make him an ideal casualty of West’s dream dump. The same could be said for another fictional young artist lured out to Hollywood by a talent scout for a film studio: Barton Fink. That film borrows liberally from West’s novel, from its set-up right up to its infernal climax. But where the film makes a final swerve into fantasy, The Day of the Locust, for all its grotesquerie, keeps one foot firmly planted in realism.
Barton Fink’s ideas about artistic integrity–his precious attachment to the life of the mind, for example–are skewered by both the Coens and the bottom-line obsessed studio bosses to whom he’s contractually obligated. From his ivory tower Fink chooses as his subject the common man, even if he couldn’t spot one standing right in front of him. The Coens lay the irony on thick here. Fink’s socialist realist play, which had originally won him the fickle attention of Hollywood–with its opening cries of the fishmonger–is the punchline of one of the film’s running gags. West doesn’t treat Hackett’s lofty artistic ambitions in exactly the same way. Maybe that’s because Todd shares with his author the aspiration to represent Hollywood existence as a circle of Hell. Like his author, Todd chooses as his subjects the most hopeless and destitute. And so the large-scale painting he works on throughout the novel, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” is probably the part about him that’s least pathetic. This painting at least enables him to keep the flame of his talent burning, however weak and withered it might be. In a novel where the majority of the characters are denied much in the way of hope, opportunity and dignity, this is a noteworthy instance of author benevolence.
In his introduction to my edition, Budd Schulberg calls The Day of the Locust a collection of “mad vignettes.” A few are standouts: Todd escapes his loneliness one night by going to a successful screenwriter’s party and later finds himself in a brothel watching an erotic French film projected onto a roll-up screen. In another, Todd is strung along by his romantic obsession, Faye Greener, out to a cowboy camp with one of her deadbeat flings, where they catch and cook quail and get drunk off tequila. The vignette itself is intoxicating and plays out like a dream. Near the end of the novel there’s a cockfight staged in a garage, lit up by a car’s headlights. One of the handlers is a dwarf who later, in the midst of a drunken frenzy, gets swung by his feet into a wall. Where else but Hollywood.