El Centro, California, is a dusty little agricultural hamlet on the southern edge of the Imperial Valley, not far from the Mexican border In the spring of 1954, acting on a tip that a junior college out there was looking for football players, two high school friends and I drove all the way from East Texas to see about filling its need. Approaching El Centro from the east on U.S. Highway 80, we sailed safely through an intersection with California Route 111 four miles east of town. We didn’t know it at the time—and it wouldn’t have meant anything to us if we had—but a gifted American novelist and his wife had died in a grinding two-car collision at that very intersection some 14 years earlier.
The novelist was Nathanael West. This past year marked the 75th anniversary of his death on December 22, 1940. West wasn’t famous at the time. Indeed, he was hardly known. His wife, Eileen McKenney West, was probably better known than he was, having been the subject of a popular Broadway play written by her sister and titled, appropriately, My Sister Eileen. Over the years since his untimely death, however, the reputation of Nathanael West as a novelist has continued to grow, and grow. He was only 37 when he died, and had written just four short novels, only two of which were any good. But the two, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, were very good indeed. They have stood the test of time. You can read them today without feeling any loss of immediacy, any lessening of the freshness of their appeal.
West was working as a Hollywood screenwriter at the time of his death. Oddly, another Hollywood screenwriter and a close friend of West’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had died of a heart attack in Hollywood just the day before. West had been successful as a screenwriter, whereas Fitzgerald had not. Content to work on grade-B pictures that didn’t overly tax his creativity, West had succeeded in making a very good living for himself and his wife and freed himself up for what he really liked to do, which was hunt and fish. He and Eileen were returning from a successful dove-hunting trip down in Baja California when they met their death at the intersection of Highway 80 and Route 111.
West was notorious among his friends for his bad driving. He would apparently become distracted while talking and forget he was behind the wheel. He had been known to make sudden U-turns in the middle of heavy traffic. He passed on hairpin curves, occasionally even drove on the wrong side of the road. “As reports of the deaths began circulating around Hollywood, those who knew Nat weren’t surprised,” writes Marion Meade in her dual biography of West and Eileen, Lonelyhearts, the Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. Meade recounts the time when West and Eileen were pulled over for one of his many driving infractions by a highway patrolman who chatted jovially with the convivial Nat, then proceeded to write him a ticket anyway, despite Nat’s protests that he had done nothing wrong. As the patrolman was walking away from them they heard him mutter under his breath, “Nice guy, bad driver.” This became the punchline in the couple’s frequent retelling of the story among friends.
And indeed, the accident near El Centro that day had been West’s fault. Traveling north on Route 111, he had run the stop sign at the Highway 80 intersection and slammed into the other car. This was determined at the inquest two days later: “We, the undersigned, find that Nathaniel [sic] W. West and Mrs. Eileen McKenney West died as a result of negligent driving on the part of Mr. Nathaniel W. West,” wrote the seven jurors. They had wanted to know if alcohol was involved. Several broken bottles of Mexican beer were found at the scene, but it was determined that nobody had been drinking from them at the time. “In the end,” writes Meade, “seven practical men reported that Nathanael West, driver of a 1940 Ford station wagon, plowed through an intersection and slammed headlong into Joe Dowless’s 1937 Pontiac. They were at a loss to explain why he had done so.”
A photograph of the wreck appeared in the Calexico, California newspaper the day after the accident with an overhead caption reading, “Where Two Died, Three Met Injuries Sunday.” It shows the badly mashed station wagon in the foreground, its doors flung open by the impact, resting in a pool of its own oil and gasoline. Dowless’s Pontiac is only partly visible off to the right, down in a ditch. Both West and Eileen had been thrown from their car by the impact, and had died of the resulting injuries. “Skull fracture” was listed as the cause of death in both cases.
Joe Dowless was a migrant farm worker. He had been returning from a melon-picking job over near Yuma, Arizona. With him in the Pontiac were his wife, Christine, and their small daughter, Ann. Dowless was 27, his wife 21. They were living with Christine’s parents in El Centro at the time. Joe’s injuries as a result of the crash were minor, as were those of his daughter, but his wife suffered a broken leg and a cracked pelvis.
The Dowlesses were part of that mighty wave of immigrants who had descended on California in the 1930s, lured by the hope of a better life. Christine’s parents had been farmers in Ohio before making the move west. It was the era of the Great Depression, after all, the era of the Dust Bowl and Yip Harburg’s “Brother, can you spare a dime?” California had been seen as a land of plenty, as John Steinbeck made clear in his hugely influential novel of the time, The Grapes of Wrath. For many, if not most, of these newcomers the vision of plenty turned out to be a mirage. Ironically, West’s The Day of the Locust had focused much of its attention on these very people. His original title for the novel had been The Cheated, by whom he meant people like the Dowlesses who had come to California expecting one thing and had found to their dismay quite another.
Toward the end of The Day of the Locust a riot takes place in the street outside a Hollywood movie premiere. One of the leading characters, Homer Simpson, himself an immigrant to California from small-town Iowa, sparks it by stomping to death a child actor named Adore Loomis, who had been annoying him throughout the book. The crowd outside the theater uses this violence, West makes clear, as an excuse to let loose its own immense, simmering hostility toward the way things are, its aching disappointment at what life in California has turned out to be. “All their lives,” West writes,
they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. . . .Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges? [However,] Once there, they discovered that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. . . . Did they slave so long just to go on an occasional Iowa picnic?
The Day of the Locust is far and away the best novel ever written about Hollywood. Some say Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon might have rivaled it had Fitzgerald ever finished the book, but he didn’t, and it exists today only in truncated form, a tease of what might have been. Tycoon views Hollywood from the top down. Its central character is a movie producer modeled on Irving Thalberg, the boy genius of the early years on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. West’s novel, on the other hand, views Hollywood from the bottom up. Its cast of characters seems drawn almost from a carnival freak show. It includes a dwarf, an ex-vaudevillian reduced to selling silver polish door to door, some performing Eskimos, a slick Mexican hustler, and a cowboy extra with all the charm, and verbal facility, of a cigar-store Indian. The dwarf, Abe Kusich, is one of the best-drawn figures in modern American fiction. A fierce little man, he takes no guff from anyone and has a wisecrack—or three—for every situation. There is a cockfighting scene toward the end of the book that fairly crackles with energy; it sets up the story’s apocalyptic ending. Abe figures prominently in this scene and stamps himself for all time as someone not to be trifled with.
For West, Hollywood was copy. He loved it for its vulgarity and its unashamed greed. If he had lived, he would probably have mined it for more stories. As good as The Day of the Locust is, however, it didn’t sell. Indeed, none of West’s books did. This was why he had moved out to the West Coast in the first place. Defending his decision to do so to his East Coast friends, he once cited the cruel fact that in some 15 years of writing novels he had managed to earn a grand total of $700 in royalties.
The critic Edmund Wilson said West had a gloomy “eastern European” sensibility and that was part of the problem. He compared West to Gogol and Chagall, said he trafficked in the grotesque. West himself agreed. “In my books there is no one to root for,” he admitted, “and what’s worse, no rooters.” In further explanation of The Day of the Locust’s lack of commercial success, West admitted he had been guilty of filling it with “private, unfunny jokes.” He didn’t bother to identify these jokes, but one of the more obvious ones has to do with Homer Simpson’s hands. Throughout the book West calls attention to them; over and over we are asked to watch as they writhe and twist and creepily wash themselves. They are huge and menacing, these hands, and they seem to have a life of their own. Keep an eye on those hands, reader, the author seems to be saying. Keep an eye on those hands. Yet when we come at the end of the novel to the climactic scene, in which Homer kills the boy actor Adore Loomis, West has him do it, not with his hands, but with his feet, by stomping him to death. Presumably, West thought that was hilarious. Others might not be so sure.
The Day of the Locust is told in the third person, with a young man named Tod Hackett as its point-of-view character. Tod is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts who has come out to California to work as a movie set and costume designer. He becomes obsessed with Faye Greener, the ex-vaudevillian’s beautiful 17-year-old daughter, but Faye will have nothing to do with him. She tells him bluntly that because he is neither handsome nor rich he has no chance with her. As Tod looks at a provocative photograph of Faye, West writes, in some of his crispest prose,
Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes.
Rejected by this teenaged femme fatale, Tod becomes a mere hanger-on and acts as our observer during all the scenes that follow, including the magnificent cockfight scene. By the book’s end he has so deteriorated as a personality that we find him, in the seething midst of the movie-premiere riot, screaming at the top of his lungs in imitation of the siren of an approaching ambulance, come to retrieve the wounded and the dead. Clearly, Tod is in a bad way, but ultimately it is he who delivers a final judgment on what he has witnessed and been through by executing a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles,” which features, in a huge James Ensor-like tapestry, many of the characters, including the rioters, Faye Greener, Abe Kusich, and others, who populate the book. This painting, as West had informed us back at the beginning, “definitely proved he had talent.” For what that would be worth to him.
Elsewhere in the book, West delivers his own judgment on the way events, as selected and depicted by him, were trending. “There would be civil war,” he says. This sounds overly dire until we remember when the book was published. The year was 1939. The Spanish Civil War had just ended, badly from the point of view of those on the American Left, which included West; Hitler was on the march in Central Europe; and the U.S., nine years into the Great Depression, was flat on its back economically. In West’s view, a plague of some sort was in the offing. It’s why he called his novel The Day of the Locust.
The mirage of plenty, the chimera of wealth and happiness ever after, had already drawn hundreds of thousands to California by the time my high school buddies and I arrived out there in the 1950s, looking for gridiron glory. That too turned out to be a mirage. We had expected to be greeted as saviors and to receive football scholarships to the junior college, which would provide us with room, board, books, and lots of spending money to lavish on adoring coeds. But, alas, it was not to be. El Centro Junior College didn’t even offer football scholarships. The State of California didn’t allow them. We might have known this if we had bothered to ask around, but, being 17 and pig-ignorant, we didn’t.
West, on the other hand, had been one of the lucky ones in the California lottery. A native New Yorker, and the son of the prosperous owner of a building company, he was himself a recent immigrant to the Golden State. But he, unlike the rest of us, had been a winner. He had made a good life for himself, with a witty and adoring wife, lots of good friends, a healthy paycheck, and plenty of time to hunt and fish. For him, all had been sunshine and roses (not oranges)—at least until that bright December day in 1940 when he ran a stop sign at the intersection of U.S. 80 and Route 111 and crashed headlong into the hapless Dowlesses.