Welcome to Hollywood circa 1939, the land of the ones with dead eyes who wander the sunny streets and frequent the gaudy hotels while on the prowl for the decaying dream of Mae West, Shirley Temple, and Clark Gable.
Meet Tod Hackett, the narrator and painter who does work for one of the many studios in tinsel town. Like too many people, Tod came out to Hollywood to make some money and it big. So far, he’s hacking it. He likes to keep a distance from most people and he has a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles” that he works on to keep sane.
Meet Faye Greener, Tod’s object of defection. She dreams of being in pictures and she’s forever read for her close-up, Mr. DeMille. Faye lives with her father, Harry, who sells overpriced, homemade polish to get into strangers’ houses and force them to watch his once-reviewed clown act. He’s a failed actor. One of Tod’s few successful friends is Claude, a screenwriter. Tod’s last friend is an arrogant dwarf.
Tod’s problems are Earle, a tall, handsome cowboy who Faye thinks is just dandy, and Earle’s henchman, a Mexican and a dedicated cock fighter who knows how to dirty dance.
“Go West, young man.”
Nathanael West died in a car accident in 1940, at the age of thirty-seven. The legend is that he was rushing to get to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral.
Although not much appreciated in his lifetime, West’s novels began to gain recognition in the fifties. Today he is well regarded — The Day of the Locust appears on the Modern Library’s list of best novels as well as on Time magazine’s recent Top 100 — and considered a permanent part of America’s literary canon, but many people still don’t take warmly to his manic, modernist style.
I think West is one of the best writers I’ve read. His novels are short, inelegant and yet logical — in an Animaniacs kind of way. They’re crammed with ideas, witticisms, observations, and un-hackneyed emotion. They take big themes and express them through small, larger-than-life characters. They don’t preach.
One of the important characters in the novel is named Homer Simpson. I’m not sure if the Matt Groening had him in mind when creating the The Simpsons, but there are a few similarities between West’s book and the television show: both Homer Simpson characters are dumb, good-natured oafs; both have the peculiar quality of always being out of their elements; and both the novel and the cartoon have a sardonic, incisive flavour of funny.
Love is a Four-Letter Word
Whatever love may be, in West’s degenerated Hollywood, it’s quite simple. It’s often expressed as a fantasy, in a cheap restaurant, and alone. Sometimes the waiter interferes and there’s no climax; other times it works just swell.
If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.
That’s Tod speaking. He’s the hero of the novel. He’s just being honest. And West, he’s just being cynical, brutal and honest — like always.