Friday, April 22, 2011

#33 - "The Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locust
The 33rd book of The List has been read; one third finished, two thirds to go.  It was 18 months ago I started reading these 100 novels and I'm a little behind my desired pace, so I currently should be finishing around April of 2014.  I actually finished my latest book a few days ago, but was out of town and unable to find the time to write anything about it.

The quarter pole book, er...third pole, was The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, which ended up being so because I was hoping to squeeze in a quick read before going away, thus I wouldn't have to pack more than two books for my trip.  Of course, despite being only 127 pages and the second shortest on the list so far (ahead of only The Bridge of San Luis Rey) I wasn't able to finish it until about halfway through my flight; about two hours too late.

The book is set in Hollywood in the 1930's, and centers around a few fringe players in the movie industry.  Included are Tod Hackett, a wannabe artist who works painting backgrounds for movie sets, and the woman he's after, Faye Greener, an aspiring starlet.  As the story moves along, the two run into many obstacles to ever getting together, meaning Faye has other suitors who are getting in Tod's way.  Most notably is Homer Simpsons (see my previous post), a hapless businessman who Faye uses for money, clothing and shelter, and Erle Shoop, another Hollywood wannabe whose Texan roots lend well to being an extra playing cowboys in the movies.

Of course the book isn't just a novelization of a rom-com, where the a love triangle develops and hilarity ensues.  Rather it is the story of Hollywood and the people who try and fail to make it big in the movies.  Which in reality of course, is almost everybody.  Nearly every character has moved to Southern California, with the hopes of becoming the next big thing, and most of them will stop at nothing to see this dream become a reality.  Faye Greener even goes so far as to say that if she doesn't become a big star, she'll kill herself.  I shudder to think how many people actually lived out this scene.

When I finished reading this book, I had a hard time putting my finger on it.  But it suddenly dawned on me, that my having trouble writing about it, was because I didn't really like it.  It isn't that it was poorly written, but the story wasn't terribly interesting, and the characters, for the most part, weren't that memorable.  In fact, when I look back at it, the only thing that jumps out about it in my mind, was the fact that one of the characters was named Homer Simpson.  I'm sure if Fitzgerald's book was called The Great Simpson, I'd have been able to get over it, and I doubt Homer would be the only thing I remember.

Not only was in not that interesting, it was also slightly depressing and didn't really have any closure at the end.  Now an unhappy ending can be done to great effect, (see Gatsby again) but here it only led me to often lose interest in what was happening.  As for the conclusion, the book just seemed to end for no reason other than West ran out of ink.  Had it not been for the fact that there were only a few pages left, I wouldn't have had any clue I was nearing the end.

But then I begin to wonder, as I always do when I don't really care for a book from The List, did I miss something?  Maybe there is some deeper meaning to this novel, and I'm not savvy enough to pick up on it.  Or maybe I read the important parts when I was sleepy and kind of glossed over them.  But then again, maybe it just wasn't that good of a book.

Having been written in 1939, The Day of the Locust was one of the first books to try and tackle the movie industry.  So perhaps it was a little more cutting edge at the time, exploring such a  glamorous and exciting business.  But today, when the topic has been discussed ad naseum, when there are magazines, books, TV shows, movies, blogs, and facebook groups dedicated to the same thing, perhaps it's impact isn't as profound.

You can read TIME magazine's original review from June 19, 1939 right here.  It's interesting to note that TIME didn't think much of this book in 1939.

Notes: There is an odd line in this novel, which goes as follows: "...from a flood in Medicine Hat, Wyoming, to an angry policeman in Moose Factory, Ontario."  Besides being two of the funnier place names around, anybody from Alberta (as I am) can tell you Medicine Hat is here, not in Wyoming.  I have been unable to find any trace of a Medicine Hat, Wyoming, so I'm guessing West must have liked 'Medicine Hat', but thought Alberta was a little too obscure in 1939.  'Moose Factory', by the way, does exist, and is home to former NHL'er Jonathan Cheechoo.

The main character's name is spelt 'Tod', so I didn't misspell it in this post.  However, the edition of this book I read did, having spelt it 'Todd' once, like a normal person would.

As I mentioned, I actually finished this book last Sunday, so I'm already over halfway through number thirty-four, The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.

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