Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Rumination upon The Day of the Locust, Its Antecedents, and Its Successors

I've known John Joseph Ryan for a few years - anybody living in St. Louis with a noir-bent crime fiction habit is bound to eventually find the similarly afflicted to enable their lifestyle - and every time we talk I leave the encounter enriched with a little more insight and bothered by a deeper itch for devouring the literature and film John and I share an attraction to.

John is the author of A Bullet Apiece and you may know his name from short fiction at Shotgun Honey, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder or The Flash Fiction Offensive. Even though it wasn't written for the series I'm adding this piece to the Picture Books line because it's about both Nathanael West's book and John Schlesinger's film adaptation of The Day of the Locust and you know how much I dig those conversations.

Give it a read and if you like what you see check out his fiction.

A Rumination upon The Day of the Locust, Its Antecedents, and Its Successors
by John Joseph Ryan

My dad first introduced me to The Day of the Locust in one of his many points of reference to art I had yet to experience. He recalled either the book or the film. (I’m not sure which.) What made an impression upon me was a grown man stomping an obnoxious child to death. I was a child myself. (I can’t remember how old.) As was pretty typical for my Jesuit-trained father, he did not screen me from much about the world. (He was Jesuit trained in two senses: both a graduate of SLUH and a novice with six years of training for the priesthood before departing their incipient ranks and meeting my mother not too long after.) I can remember imagining the scene as my dad described it—I had not seen the film nor read the book yet. I can also remember understanding both sides: there were some kids in my grade I wouldn’t mind seeing stomped upon by an adult; on the other hand, I felt empathy for the stomped boy and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be crushed repeatedly until dead. It sounded terrible.

I might have seen some of the film with him. I know I have seen the whole thing, but it has been at least twenty (if not more) years ago. I remember the Mexican, Miguel, atop Faye in a sweaty bed scene. I remember Donald Sutherland. And I remember the scene of him stomping, bug-eyed, upon the boy. I think in the film they might have given Faye’s song, Jeepers Creepers, to the kid in order to enhance his annoying qualities. I remember Sutherland’s terrific, crazed, bug-eyed stare as he stomped remorselessly. I connect that look in his eyes in my dim mind’s eye with the final scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which a curly-coiffured Sutherland turns to the camera with those same buggy eyes, opens his mouth, points, and makes a guttural animal croak; he’s been snatched, too.

The image, whether in print or film, of Homer Simpson stomping Adore Loomis is what makes the Grotesque so savagely attractive. Oh, we shouldn’t laugh at that. Is anyone looking? No? Oh, good. Oh, God, that is so fucking funny. That is so dark. That is perfect.

I must have read The Day of the Locust for the first time fifteen or so years ago. I remember picking it up because an older colleague used it in his American Literature class at the high school where I teach, and I had some aspirations to model at least some of my approaches to American Lit on his. The edition of the novel was bundled with Miss Lonelyhearts, so I read them both. I devoured them both, actually. I remember them as being particularly hard-boiled in a mid-twentieth-century way.

The Day of the Locust is certainly hard-boiled. With its cast of misfits, there is not really anyone you can point to and call moral in any conventional sense. Tod Hackett spends a fair part of the book entertaining fantasies of raping Faye Greener and composing his magnum opus, The Burning of Los Angeles. Homer Simpson is a timid, self-loathing time bomb, and when he commits his atrocious act against young Loomis, it is only the target of his violence that is the surprise, not the act of violence itself, coming as it does from such a pent-up palooka as he.

Faye Greener is a femme fatale without the complexities of the classic ones from film noir and the novels of Chandler and Hammett. But God is she alluring, and it is no wonder she has a host of saps doting on her and vying with and bruising each other in order for the opportunity to bed her. That Miguel succeeds is a twist of a punchline, one which her late father, Harry, would have appreciated as a vaudevillian. The cowboy Earle, the bon vivant Claude, the tough dwarf Abe Kusich, are all from central casting, yet each is unique enough to make his the base of his stereotype wobble: Earle really is able to live off the land, but he is unfit for the fast-paced schemers of L.A.; Claude may have a house imitative of an antebellum mansion, but he is a dessicated man, not a Big Daddy, and he can’t handle the reality of cock fighting and true sex-induced violence; Abe, the bookie, displays such tenderness for his wounded red rooster that the cock fight scene’s deplorable violence lingers even longer for his solicitude and care for a bird he has refused to bet upon. It’s the grey, after all, that makes noir compelling, not the black and white.

But The Day of the Locust is so much more. Rereading it now, I cannot help but see the influence of Scott Fitzgerald (who was an early admirer of West’s work); additionally, I realize that West’s novel must have inspired other writers whose own forays into the Grotesque and the Absurd bear, I now realize, a resemblance to Locust.

The novel has two imbedded set pieces, one near the beginning, the other near the end, each a kind of matte cut to fit inside the larger frame of the studio lot in motion and the later riot. The first imbedded seat piece is almost a Great Gatsby knockoff with Tod Hackett going to a house party with Claude, replete with drinking and zooming around in roadsters. Tod behaves like a guileless Nick Carraway in this chapter, making observations and generally staying out of the way. The second imbedded set piece also recollects Gatsby, only this time it is Faye Greener (not Daisy Buchanan, nee Faye, interestingly enough) who is the center of attention; in this chapter, set in the hapless Homer’s house, Faye deploys her sexual energy to a terrifying level that Daisy Buchanan could only pretend to possess with her pose of cynicism. Also like Fitzgerald, West was a hell of a stylist, and one could fill a notebook with his great turns of phrase.

A second literary antecedent might be Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, not only for that novel’s deployment of the Grotesque, but also specifically for its character Wing Biddlebaum—who cannot control his hands—and his connection to Homer, who also cannot control his hands and painfully admits to an annoyed Tod that “ ‘I can’t help it, Tod. I have to do it three times’ ” (chapter 22). In other instances throughout Locust, Tod is analogous to young newspaper editor George Willard in Winesburg, observing the behavior of his outlandish townsfolk and writing about them (while Tod has his sketches of L.A.’s oddballs).

But West’s novel is truly his own, and its unique marriage of the Grotesque and the hard-boiled seems to prefigure some of the later Southern Gothic writers, particularly Flannery O’Connor. In Wise Blood, we have a similar cast of characters. Homer Simpson is a combination of the obtuse (and later murderous) Hazel Motes and the gullible and friendless Enoch Emory. Harry Greener is not unlike the preacher Asa Hawks, whose daughter, Sabbath Lily, becomes a source of attraction for Hazel (as Faye does for Homer). Faye doubles as the prostitute, Leora Watts, who teases and belittles Hazel just as Faye does to Homer (and Tod, in a way, by making him pay for dinner while she smooches Earle in front of him). In both novels, the dark humor becomes laugh-out-loud funny at times, but the seriousness of their discoveries about humanity’s isolation and violence prevent their being mere farce.

Filmmakers have also borrowed from West. I can’t imagine Paper Moon could have existed without Day of the Locust. Sweet and Low Down, Woody Allen’s sentimental flick about a jazz guitarist who falls in love with a mute woman, is the title of a film in production at the studio where Tod works (chapter 15). Perhaps Larry McMurtry had characters such as Earle in mind when he wrote The Last Picture Show. (And if not, the producers of the film version surely did.) Raymond Carver’s short stories, at least those which formed the basis for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, also puncture the myths of southern California and reveal the cynical, deadly side of Hollywood in a manner at least as grotesque as West’s. Finally, of course, where else could The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson have come from? It is too odd a name to be coincidental. Tod even addresses Homer as “Homie” (Marge Simpson’s pet name for her thick husband) in a scene where Homer realizes he has lost control of his own home (chapter 22).

The Day of the Locust may be specific to the disenchantment of Hollywood glamour, and it certainly succeeds there. But is much more. All of America could fall under its indictment. Few native Angelenos populate the book. Harry and Faye are from the East, as is Tod. Homer is from Iowa. Maybelle Loomis proudly proclaims that she is “an old settler” in California, having been there just six years (chapter 19). It may be where Americans go “to die,” as Tod oft proclaims throughout the book. In the novel’s apocalyptic finale, he seems to know. As he returns to his vision of The Burning of Los Angeles, he imagines embellishing the flames he has painted in with the mob he is presently crushed within. In a chilling condemnation, he observes that they are “poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence” (chapter 27). Nearly eighty years after The Day of the Locust’s publication, the United States beset by a charlatan who is not a head of studio but head of the most powerful nation on earth stirring the masses with “the promise of miracles,” surely the violence of this epoch is just starting.

John Joseph Ryan writes unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction. His work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder series, Out of the Gutter Flash Fiction Offensive, the Noir Riot anthology, Shotgun Honey, Suspense Magazine, and elsewhere.  His debut novel, A Bullet Apiece, was published by Blank Slate Press in 2015. John is currently working on a new novel featuring a woman who may or may not have a killing habit.

No comments: