Literary Daybook, May 16

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 16, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 16, Dr. Rieux finds a dead rat.
-- "The Plague" (1947)
by Albert Camus

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1939 Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" was published. Though now ranked with F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon" as one of the best novels on Hollywood, and on the Modern Library's Top 100 of the century list, "The Day of the Locust" had mixed reviews when it came out and was a commercial flop. As was "Miss Lonelyhearts" and his other two novels: In his only decade of writing -- he died in a car crash on December 22, 1940, at the age of 37 -- West made $1,280 from his books.


The failure of "The Day of the Locust" compelled him to continue working as a screenwriter, and to continue living in the Hollywood that his novel so darkly satirized.

West's target, unlike most attacks on Hollywood, was not the glitz and sleaze of those atop the "dream dump." He wanted a portrait of the infrastructure, of the entire culture of "screwballs and screwboxes." As religion, this meant those who worshipped at the "Church of Christ, Physical," hoisting chest weights and flexing spring grips; or at the "Tabernacle of the Third Coming," listening to a cross-dresser preach the "Crusade Against Salt"; or at the glass and chromium "Temple Moderne," learning "Brain-Breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs." As "a great bonfire of architectural styles," it meant the pagodas, castles, casinos, chateaus, chalets, beach huts and haciendas in which such people huddled and became desperate. As types, it meant a gallery of has-beens, would-bes and think-they-ares: an ex-vaudeville clown peddling silver polish, a drunken dwarf, a "Dr. Know-All Pierce-All," a dangerously simple hotel clerk named Homer Simpson, a horde of disenchanted hangers-on who "had come to California to die."

West said he wanted to believe in Steinbeck's "Ma Joad" view of California -- he joined the committees to help the workers; he called his novel "The Cheated" in draft -- but when he sat down at the typewriter all he could write was satire, and all he could see was a different America: "the cultists, the bit players, extras, freaks ... the different sects, hermits, prophets ... the strange architecture, the old sets on a back lot, like the paintings by Dali, the extra girls, beautiful, hard-pressed, sleeping four in a tiny room dreaming of stardom, brokendown vaudevillians and ancient comics in their special barrooms, where they work over old routines, the racial types, playing Eskimos one week and Hawaiians the next ..."


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

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