Nathaniel West flunked out of high school and barely made it through college. He failed at Tufts and stole the identify of another student to get into Brown. While there, he contracted gonorrhea twice and just barely passed.
He possessed almost no physical skill, yet he became a construction worker and a hotel manager. A screenwriting position eventually beckoned him to Hollywood. He wrote scripts for a few B-movies and even had an opportunity to create a screenplay for an Alfred Hitchcock film. But, Hitchcock drafted a different script and West died the next year, in 1940, three days before Christmas.
Even in what became his legacy, and the reason I’m writing about him now (his fiction), he’s considered a waste of incredible potential. Understandably so, his works were met with confusion by critics and fellow authors. His first story, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, focuses on a man who crawls inside the ass of the Trojan Horse. His most notable work, Miss Lonelyhearts, is a mess of scattered neuroses with little direction. None of them sold well until years after his death.
The Day of the Locust, probably the best reflection of West as a person, didn’t fair any better in the author’s contemporary literary atmosphere. There were other books that talked about movies, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, in a much more grandiose and complementary way. The Day of the Locust is filled with apocalyptic prophecies, pornography and rape. Its final scene is frenetic and jumbled. If Fitzgerald’s work was an advertisement, West’s was a book of revelations.
But he filled this work with a passion that’s been unmatched in his or any other writer’s catalog on the mirage of Hollywood, partly because he fatally wandered into it himself. The Day of the Locust doesn’t make any solid conclusions about those who go to California to die or those who find success on or behind the screen. Rather, it’s the thin veneer of glamour West peels back from every movie theater across the country that exposes every one of us who invests themselves into this collective fetish of stars and the walk of fame and the Hollywood sign. West posits that Hollywood is a badly hidden mirror of all of humanity’s worst vices, namely sexual perversion and primal violence. And we buy our tickets to watch our sins played out by the biggest names with the best looks, because the ending is happier that way.
But The Day of the Locust digs deeper than that. Hollywood is a lens that just happens to be part of West’s milieu during his short life. His message is more universal than its medium. The novel conflates our composite purchase of Hollywood, which props up the industry’s illusory projection, with something more dire: American optimism. In his life, a series of abject failure after abject failure, West stumbled through Hollywood like America was stumbling through stock market crashes and dust bowls. Yet neither could escape their unfounded potential and baseless dreams. Both were participatory agents in their own demise.
The only difference rises from their ends. Individually, taking the abstract tenets of the American dream and creating a prosperous life through them became a common hope for every failed businessman and sharecropper of the 1930s. West had no end. If it was to achieve literary peace and perfection, he didn’t come close. If he genuinely wanted to became a successful screenwriter, he wouldn’t have written The Day of the Locust and wouldn’t have displayed so much conviction in doing so. If it was to shoot small birds in his free time, trying to administer even an ounce of virility and dominion over something, he squandered his immense innate talents, like everyone else said.
If he personally didn’t have one, his prophetic The Day of the Locust certainly lent one out to us. Either we run our whole lives or submit to our own worst tendencies. We’re either cowards and manipulators or sexual deviants and soldiers of destruction. We purport our constructivist culture and we watch movies and we want to succeed in business and we love our Hollywood stars. But we really love famines and dust bowls and economic depressions. We love to watch like a voyeur our own society crumble. It’s only in engaging in the fall that our own end arrives.
Then, is it our own potential that ran out like West’s? Or was The Day of the Locust just a plaintive whimper from a failed student turned failed screenwriter? Should we reconsider his work as a comedy, falling over itself before the punchline hits? Or should we get up out of our seats as the movie ends, drive home, and regret not peeling back that layer of separation a little bit farther?
But this is all just musings on an author who threw his potential away, couldn’t make it in the industry and came to California to die. A writer that Hollywood and America forgot.