Arion Lyre

97. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, with an introduction by David Thomson, and photographs by Lucy Gray.

The Day of the Locust, the novel by Nathanael West, with an introduction by David Thomson, and twenty photographs by Lucy Gray, July 2013.


The story tells of Tod Hackett, an artist just graduated from Yale, who is brought to Hollywood by the agent for a studio and takes a job designing sets and costumes for the movies. His friends warn him that he is selling out and will never be a serious painter. He meets an actress named Faye Greener, who has had bit parts but has no talent, except for arousing Tod. Her father Harry is a run-down vaudevillian, reduced to selling bottled elixirs door-to-door. A dwarf named Abe Kusich finds Tod an apartment in the “San Berdoo Arms”, where the Greeners live. Tod is befriended by a successful screenwriter, Claude Estee, who puts on lavish, decadent parties. He encounters Homer Simpson, a former hotel bookkeeper from Waynesville, Iowa, who has come to California for his health (and, like so many fellow Midwesterners, to live out his life in a warm climate). Earle Shoop, a cowboy from Arizona, is a rival for the affections of Faye, as is, too, a Mexican cockfighter named Miguel. Mabel Loomis, a stage-mother, and her precious and evil son Adore are neighbors.

Tod, to remain true to his artistic calling, is working on a big canvas entitled “The Burning of Los Angeles”. “Across the top . . . he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street, and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. For the faces of its members, he was using the innumerable sketches he had made of people who have come to California to die, the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious, the wave, airplane, funeral, and preview watchers—all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.”

The twenty photographs are done in the manner of movie stills, as if taken at night. The first three set the scene, showing the Hollywood Hills at dusk, the fanciful architecture observed by Tod in his neighborhood, and his own decrepit apartment building. Faye appears in the hallway of the “San Berdoo”. Homer hides behind the blind of his rental house. Harry does a flim-flam turn and his hat-trick, then he lies abed sick with Faye in attendance. Earle Shoop lounges in cowboy boots with his tall hat beside him. Fay and Miguel dance. Tod and Faye go to the movies. Faye forces Homer to drink. Tod and Fay dance. Miguel provokes a fighting cock. Homer smirks. Tod and Homer sit on a curb while Homer makes a church and steeple with his hands. Earle and Faye dance. Abe butts in and Faye tweaks his nose. Homer jumps on Adore. Tod, lying injured on the ground, looks up at the movie theater where the premiere started the riot. Discrete captions below the photographs identify the subjects. The actors who posed for photographer Lucy Gray are acknowledged on the colophon page.


“Thomson and Gray are absolutely the most brilliant interpreters of West's bleak, terrifying classic. Gray might have been there, so evocative is her camera, and no one knows more than David Thomson about Hollywood and about West himself. It's perfect.”

– Diane Johnson, author of Dashiell Hammett: A Life and “The Shining” (screenplay)

“No one remembers the 1975 film of The Day of the Locust because the casting was terrible. Images from the film never entered the folklore of the nation as the book has, but Lucy Gray’s images—conceived as stills for the movie that remains to be made—very well may. Her pictures—with buildings such as Homer Simpson’s rotting cottage or the San Bernadino Arms communicating as fully as faces or bodies—are at once familiar and revelatory. That’s exactly who Faye Greener is, you might say, even if you’ve never pictured her before—and no wonder Tod Hackett never did a thing for her. You don’t have to page back and forth between the text and the photographs; the pictures glow in the reader’s mind from first sight.”

– Greil Marcus, author of Lipstick Traces and A New Literary History of America

“Auden said about The Day of the Locust, that, if it was a parable about Hollywood as Hell, it was a hell in which the devil was not the father of lies but the father of wishes. Lucy Gray’s photographs catch that exactly, the moment when, as David Thomson writes in an introduction to the book, ‘the wishes that constitute the American dream are slipping into nightmare.’ But as with so many great photographs it’s not the nightmare that gives them power, it’s the ordinariness that this dark, luminous wishing comes from. How brilliant the staging of the completely artificial ‘natural light’ and the completely awkward ‘natural poses’ in Gray's photographs. It’s a perfect equivalent for what’s so awful and heartbreaking and beautiful in West’s novel.”

– Robert Hass, past U.S. Poet Laureate and author of What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World

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