Novel's portrait still strikingly relevant 70 years on

May 16 marks the 70th anniversary of Nathanael West’s novel “Day of the Locust,” which still seems like the freshest and most accurate portrait of Hollywood. Unlike many novels, this one doesn’t peek into the cutthroat executive suites of showbiz. It’s about people on the fringe — the dreamers who aspire to film careers, as well as those who’ve given up hope, and the audiences and onlookers whose disappointments and hatred are stirred by the Dream Factory.

As with any classic, it’s surprisingly contemporary. Like me, you may fret about all the anger floating in the zeitgeist: Cable commentators trying to out-shout one another, TV evangelists fomenting hatred in the name of Jesus, the fanzines gleefully building up and tearing down stars, the anonymous rants posted on showbiz websites.

For those who wonder “How did we get here?” West offers insights that are both reassuring and troubling: Things in ’09 haven’t really gotten worse — we’ve always been this way.

In the first chapter, artist Tod Hackett, an Ivy League grad working in a studio art department, quietly observes Southern California, where everyone and everything is trying to be something else.

“The fat lady in the yachting cap was going shopping, not boating; the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning, not from a mountain, but an insurance office; and the girl in slacks and sneaks with a bandanna around her head had just left a switchboard, not a tennis court.”

He wanders among the houses of a neighborhood that is clearly patterned on Hollywoodland, the real-life housing development at the northern end of Beachwood Canyon which commissioned the famous hillside sign that remained even after the last few letters eroded.

Even in its early days, L.A. was a lovable mish-mash of architectural styles. Then as now, the buildings adopted poses, trying to be something more wonderful than they are: “The Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.”

Aside from Hackett, key characters include Faye, a woman-child and would-be actress who rejects Todd’s romantic interest: “She didn’t love him and he couldn’t further her career.” And there are has-been performers, stage mothers, religious fanatics, health-food cultists, drugstore cowboys — and always in the background are the strangers with angry eyes.

All of this anger culminates at the ultimate symbol of Hollywood faux-glamour, a movie premiere. Hackett wanders into a crowd that has formed on Hollywood Boulevard, waiting for a glimpse of the stars.

“New groups, whole families, kept arriving. He could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious.”

West says they had worked at dull jobs for years saving their money for a dream life, and have come to California. “Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough.”

“Their boredom becomes more and more terrible… They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.” The anger builds to a mob riot that is unprovoked, scary and ultimately deadly.

In a funny-sad irony, West’s sharp perceptions of anger were met with anger. After “Locust” was published by Random House, the author wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “So far the box score stands: Good reviews — 15%, bad reviews — 25%, brutal personal attacks — 60%.” (According to the Library of America, the book sold less than 1,500 copies on its initial release.)

The 1975 film adaptation, directed by the great John Schlesinger, similarly met with brickbats. Even though the walls of two Paramount soundstages were knocked down to accommodate the big riot finale, the movie was relatively inexpensive, as everyone deferred their salaries. But after the celeb-filled screening at the Bruin Theater in Westwood, Schlesinger and his partner, Michael Childers, went to dinner at the old La Scala, since a post-launch party had been cancelled. At the restaurant, other people from the screening scrupulously avoided eye contact with the director.

The novella may be bleak, but it offers a note of cheer. It’s a reminder that pervasive anger isn’t new — we’re just more aware of it, thanks to 24/7 exposure on the Internet, TV, radio and other media. And the Depression-era setting is a reminder that we survived that economic downturn, so we can survive this one.

Apparently we are not at the nadir of civilization, and all the anger, helplessness and economic hardship we’re seeing are part of an ongoing cycle. And there is something oddly comforting in that notion.

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