Lost angels and the search for something real
'The Day of the Locust' revisited
By Jamie Reno
It's not only tragic and eerily coincidental, but somehow fitting, that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, two of the 20th century's most gifted American novelists, died on the same weekend in December, 1940, and that they both died in California. West, reportedly distraught over hearing of his friend Fitzgerald's death by heart attack in Los Angeles, died in an automobile accident near El Centro after ignoring a stop sign.
Sadly, Fitzgerald and West, both of whom came to L.A. along with many other accomplished writers at various times throughout the past century to hack out screenplays for quick cash after their novels stopped paying the bills, both died young and somewhat disillusioned. Los Angeles will do that to you. "West and Fitzgerald were both writers of a conscience," Edmund Wilson, a writer himself and longtime close friend of Fitzgerald's, once wrote. "Their failures may certainly be laid partly to Hollywood, with its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted."
Some things never change. Though Wilson died in 1972, I'm convinced he would not only say the same thing about Hollywood today, but would find plenty of new and perhaps even more damning things to say. He'd surely conclude that writers and other good people still come to Los Angeles to die, that so much of the real talent in Hollywood is still squandered, and that there remains in that Land of the Lost a locust-like swarm of grotesque wannabees and shrill apologists in chronic denial about the place in which they live and what it does to people.
Los Angeles, which for me is synonymous with Hollywood and vice versa, remains a place defined by fake sentiment and blind ambition, a place where nothing feels completely real, a place where style suffocates substance, where people are at once perpetually suicidal and obsessed with health and youth. It's a place where you're simply not allowed to grow old. For me, Los Angeles remains a company town, a show-biz town, a completely superficial non-city where even many of its non-famous inhabitants enjoy a bizarre sense of self-importance simply because they drive the same choked freeways as celebrities. Many Angelenos who are in no way connected with show business seem to feel this inexplicable validation of their very existence just because they met Rob Lowe's personal trainer at the post office or know the guy who washes Cameron Diaz's dog.
Of course, our entire culture, not just Los Angeles, has become fame-obsessed. The locusts, as West called them in "The Day of the Locust" the best book ever written about Hollywood are now everywhere. But those who are truly obsessed with both being famous and being near the famous and even semi-famous eventually find their way to L.A. like bees to a pretty, poisonous flower. In Los Angeles, the surreal Mecca of Celebrity, anyone who is even remotely recognizable quickly becomes dangerously delusional and addicted to themselves. It's a sickness for which the only cures are either death or cancellation which, in Los Angeles, have the same meaning.
In "The Day of The Locust," West eloquently tells a deeply haunting tale of a group of dreamers, hangers-on, has-beens and lost souls all living on the fringes of the movie biz. The story's narrator, Tod Hackett, a smart and personable if benign young observer of the dysfunctional characters surrounding him not unlike Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" comes to Los Angeles in hopes of making it as a scenic artist. Instead, he becomes entangled in a web of lies and fears spun by his superficial new "friends."
Tod develops an unhealthy attachment to Faye Greener, a beautiful, corrupt wannabee starlet who's "kept" by a pitiful, decent simpleton named Homer Simpson (D'oh, yes, that is indeed where Matt Groening got the name for the famous cartoon dad in "The Simpsons"). Tod loves Faye, or thinks he does, but Faye, a prostitute by any definition of the word, has stars in her eyes and is neither interested in nor capable of real love. She isn't evil, but she is too narcissistic and insecure to be capable of true feeling.
Faye is classic L.A. If you live in Los Angeles or have ever spent a substantial amount of time there and tell me you don't know at least one person who fits this description, you're lying.
While Tod continues to try to seduce Faye, he prophetically lands a job working on a film titled "The Burning of Los Angeles," which foreshadows the book's horrific climax: an apocalyptic riot scene outside a Hollywood movie premiere at which Homer, who throughout the book is this gentle yet clearly tormented soul, witnesses the madness around him and finally snaps. Up to this point, Homer had held his burgeoning disdain for all the cruelty and immorality in Los Angeles close to his vest. But as the lost angels, or "locusts," begin to destroy everything in their path outside the movie house and start a raging inferno, just away from the spotlight the rage and despair in Homer erupts, too, as he mercilessly beats a bratty little child actress who represents to him everything despicable about Hollywood.
It's a terrible, inexcusable act, of course, but Homer isn't really the monster in this compelling story: Everyone around him is especially this little girl who is both manufactured and destroyed by Hollywood. Homer is simply killing the monster whom he sees as evil. It's nonetheless disturbing.
Significantly, Tod subsequently leaves Los Angeles, and will, presumably, survive. But the book really isn't as much Tod's story as it is Homer's. He may seem like just a minor character, but this story is in subtle yet undeniable ways a story told from the perspective of Homer Simpson's innocence. His degeneration from a sweet simp to a violent predator powerfully illustrates the affect Los Angeles has on everything it touches.
West and Fitzgerald both witnessed this story for real, in a sense, when they came out to L.A. to live among the locusts. When Fitzgerald moved there in the early 1930s, it was indeed the beginning of his slow but sure demise. The man who wrote some of the great novels of American literature, including "Gatsby," of course, as well as my personal favorite, "This Side of Paradise," did complete "Tender is the Night" while in Hollywood, but soon after he delved deeper and deeper into that eternally sun-drenched Hollywood depression and sank to the bottom of a bottle.
In need of money, Fitzgerald began working as a screenwriter and fell in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (Fitzgerald's wife Zelda had by this time already lost what few marbles she had left). Before his death, Fitzgerald began writing "The last Tycoon," a Hollywood novel depicting the life of a compassionate film producer who, like Jay Gatsby, rose from rags to riches. Fitzgerald only finished six chapters of this would-be masterpiece, though, before dying in 1940 just a few days before Christmas. A year later, the unfinished manuscript and notes for "The Last Tycoon," which even unfinished amounted to one of the great novels ever written about Hollywood, were published.
But Fitzgerald and West weren't alone. A number of the great American novelists William Faulkner, James Agee and many more courted Hollywood for various reasons, but typically for money as opposed to any creative pursuit. It was, in virtually each case, an act of commerce, and surrender. Really, it could be said that each of these writers went to Hollywood to die, if slowly.
Since reading "The Day of the Locust" in my early teens and subsequently moving to California after I graduated from high school though by design I've never lived in L.A. I've held a sort of morbid fascination with all things Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood. I'm intrigued by the fact that Hollywood is, really, the place of both dreams and nightmares and disgusted that even those who make great films, those who create lasting works of art in Hollywood, rarely if ever practice the messages preached in their own art: goodness, fidelity, humility, etc. It's amazing how corrupt, immoral, unkind, terribly self-absorbed people can produce such pure, inspiring, life-affirming, wonderfully egalitarian art.
Of course, there are still "real" people in Los Angeles, real and good people who have normal jobs and normal lives and who insist they do live in a real community. There are lots of people in L.A. who work in the entertainment industry whose hearts and values are in the right place, and plenty more who have nothing whatsoever to do with the entertainment industry. And yes, there is real art and real literature and real crime (lots of that), and, to a limited degree, real architecture in Los Angeles.
But for me, L.A. remains a place where the concept of "real" remains very elusive. It's still a place defined by the unreal, a place with no center, no true sense of community, and no soul. I've maintained through my 25 years living above Los Angeles (Santa Barbara) and now below (San Diego) a healthy disdain and distrust for the place. For example, I love movies, but I still generally despise their accompanying culture and the so-called "movie industry." It's just such an enduringly false world, such a pretentious world, a world in which nothings think they're gods and virtually every inhabitant is in deep denial.
Denial of age, of place, of traffic, of crime, of reality is a virtual prerequisite for living, or at least living happily, in L.A.
If Nathanael West lived in today's L.A., he'd have plenty of fodder for an even more appalled sequel to "Locust." The only meaningful difference between West's Los Angeles and Los Angeles today is the traffic is about 1,000 times worse, there are thousands more plastic surgeons and wanna-be starlets/prostitutes, the Black Dahlia has become O.J., and Homer Simpson has transformed from a well-drawn, sad character in a classic novel into a literally drawn, funny character in a Fox cartoon series. Essentially, the "city" of Lost Angels hasn't changed a bit since "The Days of the Locust." Still, nothing feels quite real.
And the locusts remain.