Nathanael West did not lead a charmed life. Of the four novels he published, none sold well during his lifetime and two publishers went out of business shortly after releasing West’s work. On top of that, West and his wife died in a car accident in 1940, although this was less of a surprise as he was a notoriously reckless driver. But West’s reputation did grow after his death, and his novels have been reprinted numerous times.
In the 1930s, West lived in Hollywood where he worked as a scriptwriter, and this experience heavily informed The Day of the Locust, his last novel. The plot moves around Tod, an aspiring artist who has moved to Hollywood to learn set and costume design. Even though many of his art school friends have labeled him a sellout for taking a job in Hollywood, he believes himself to be a serious artist and imagines creating various paintings of Los Angeles and its people. Despite his lofty ambitions and his daydreams about his great painting, Tod spends much of his time fixated on Faye Greener, an aspiring actress. Many of the characters seem to fixate on Faye, including Homer Simpson, (I’m not sure if the name is a coincidence or if Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening got the name from West’s novel) a bookkeeper who was advised to move to California for health reasons, and Earle Shoop, a wannabe movie cowboy who Faye favors over Tod and Homer.
West perfectly captures Los Angeles as well as the bizarre nature of a Hollywood studio lot, where a brisk walk can takes Tod past various movie sets attempting to portray different periods in history. The Day of the Locust captures Hollywood in the 1930s and is still considered one of the great novels about the movie business.