Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor: Nathanael West couldn’t possibly have known that 1939 would be forever remembered as Hollywood’s greatest year in films, with The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Love Affair, and Gunga Din just a sampling of the box office stunners (among 365 released!) that year. He couldn’t have known that within 20 months of publishing his seminal Hollywood philippic, The Day of the Locust, in 1939, that the planet would be at war. He couldn’t have known that because he was dead, lost along with his young wife in a motor accident on December 22, 1940, a day after the untimely death of his friend, author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But he must have sensed death in the air and denial on the ground, particularly on the edge of the earth (Hollywood), where he had been writing B-movie scripts and living among the seedier element often portrayed more gently on celluloid: tramps and dancers, vaudevillians, hucksters and goons. In The Day of the Locust, West wields his pen like a elegant surgical instrument, conveying what can only be described as an apocalyptic convocation of doomed souls, churning desperately, smashing into one and another and bobbing on dreams until they expire and become part of the hellish landscape, upon which new dreams, new souls, futilely tread.
Sound bleak? This book is as dark as it gets, signaling West’s own disenchantment with the land of make-believe and the role it played in making a select few very rich while the losers, who our protagonist Tod Hackett describes as having come “to California to die,” most often devour each other to survive, or worse, just to get their kicks.
Hackett is an artist who comes to Hollywood at the behest of a talent scout to learn set design. His friends think he “sold out,” but it becomes clear to him early on that this circus of the damned is right where an artist who prefers Goya to Whistler needs to be. He frequently ponders how he will paint “The Burning of Los Angeles,” where an orgastic mob chases his small group of friends with rocks and sticks among the holocaust of flames.
Tod introduces us to his strange and mostly pathetic acquaintances in a series of vignettes, one more raw and frightening then the next. There is the tough talking “dwarf,” the dime store cowboy and the Mexican Romeo. There is Homer Simpson (no relation), who walks around with so much corked up pathos that he is all but paralyzed—except for his hands. He came to California to live, but unfortunately met Faye Greener, a beautiful temptress, who leads everyone to a varying degree of destruction then flits away on a moonbeam, dolly back, fade to black.
Faye is Hollywood. She uses, she abuses—it’s not even personal. She prostitutes. She is all external, her flesh and sex is a siren song. She evokes violence and fuels recklessness. At one point our protagonist is so worked up he is fantasizing about raping her. He becomes part of his own painting, part of the orgy.
While West clearly saves his most piercing judgements for the elite who indulge their vices in a so much more dignified way in “nautch joints” on the hill, his description of the middle and lower classes are just as unsparing: ignorant and lizard brained, venal and corrupt. There are symbols of feeding, biting, swarming everywhere.
In the last scene Tod is swept up by a vicious mob outside a movie premiere. Unfortunately he does not know which “reality” he will eventually escape into. And neither to we. If 1939 was any indication, there are two paths: a world on the brink of destruction or the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City. Unfortunately, the real “Tod Hackett” didn’t live long enough to find out.
Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: This week I’ve been reading The Parties Versus The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans, by former congressman and professor Mickey Edwards. (It came to the TAC office some time ago as a review book, so I guess the publisher will be happy!)
The book, written during 2012, is a fairly familiar denunciation of partisanship and political, especially congressional, dysfunction. It is not, however, a What’s the Matter With Kansas? attempt to pretend that social issues and the culture war are distractions from the real issues. Edwards emphasizes that politicians and voters should bitterly disagree about a variety of issues. The problem is that under the current way of doing politics, they are bitterly disagreeing about things that do not matter. Much of the tribal and adversarial rhetoric deployed in politics—for example, Mitch McConnell’s famous declaration that the goal of congressional Republicans was to make Obama a one-term president—was not about enacting or debating policy at all.
One of the most interesting bits is Edwards’s discussion of the primary system. Before the early 1900s, party primaries were not democratic at all—party bosses chose candidates. During the Progressive Era, the primary system was democratized. However, primary voters tend to be not the broad voting public, but a narrow subset of party activists. So the bosses no longer choose, but the general public doesn’t really choose either. In fact, the entire primary system, and the entire party system itself, exist in a weird semi-official symbiosis with the actual government as established in Constitution.
One of Edwards’s main points is that the parties have essentially captured the government, in a manner that the Founding Fathers never intended and would have abhorred. Despite the early formation of political parties and the vitriol with which debate was conducted, party discipline and identity was much weaker. The issues, not the parties, reigned.
Aside from these interesting highlights in the book itself, one can read The Parties Versus the People in light of the 2016 election. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump were steadfast members of their own parties, with Trump as a former Democrat and Sanders only joining the Democrats to run under their primary.
Mickey Edwards proposes numerous reforms to break the grip of hyper-partisanship. But if 2016 was truly only the beginning of a new political alignment, American voters might just be doing it themselves.