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People of the Book 101: Nightmare Prophecies and Visions of Hope

Marek Breiger
January 13, 2015

Nathanael West and Tillie Olsen

by Marek Breiger

“Across the top, parallel with the frame, 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 of the people who had come to California... all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and only then to violence.... No longer bored they sang and danced in the red light of the flames.” —Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, 1939

“Sally and Ron, a Minnesota farm couple in their 30s, were here this week taking what’s fast becoming known locally as ‘the O.J. tour.’ They paid $1,300 in airfare and hotel bills to spend two days visiting sites made famous in the O.J. Simpson murder case and they weren’t going to be stopped by a little thing like the yellow tape marking police lines... when they came to 875 where Nicole Brown Simpson lived and where she and her waiter friend Ron Goldman died, their disposable camera came out... ‘I just had to see what kind of house she lived in,’ said Sally.” —Oakland Tribune, June 29, 1994

“The orgiastic crowd, loving you this moment, destroying you the next, is the essence of Hollywood — as Hollywood may be the essence of our success-driven culture....” —Budd Schulberg, from Introduction to The Day of the Locust, Time-Life edition, 1965

nathanael-west-photoNATHANAEL WEST’S The Day of the Locust, strong as it is, is not the defining work of California literature. It lacks the connection to place and sympathy for others that is the hallmark of our greatest California works, from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life to Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables and Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle. Yet some critics, beginning with Edmund Wilson in “The Boys in the Back Room,” have elevated West as a way of dismissing California literature, and indeed California life itself.

But just as West should not be used to diminish other California writers, those other writers should not be used to diminish West’s achievement. The Day of the Locust is of undeniable power and importance. If it is not the major California novel, it is a major California novel. Classic and still contemporary, it is honest in its anger and bitterness. West captured, better than anyone, how Hollywood’s disease reflects a national sickness. West understood our fascination with lurid detail, our ability to be part of a mob, our desire for gossip and dirt — all fed by the tabloid press and media superstructure.

It is, these days, to congratulate oneself for listening to National Public Radio instead of watching Fox News. But can any of us be confident of where Fox ends and NPR begins? We rest our honor upon slender threads. Which of us has not become an amateur psychologist, pontificating happily, as more and more innocents lie dead?

West’s hero, Tod Hackett, is a painter, a talented young artist who has come to Hollywood from the East to work as a designer of film sets. Tod believes he can be detached, create art, and observe evil while remaining untouched by evil. He is wrong, and West uses Tod’s fall to illustrate that there is a thin line between observation and complicity. By novel’s end Tod has become witness to a murder; he has been reduced to a would-be rapist; he has become a rejected boyfriend of a beautiful but vicious girl-woman. He is finally a man screaming, as in a painting by Munch, in imitation of a police car siren as a mob riots, not in legitimate anger but in joyous carnival.

He has deluded himself, as so many have since. “He told himself that it didn’t make any difference because he would not be judged by the accuracy which it [his painting] foretold the future but by its merit as a painting...” Tod has told himself that he could escape the nightmare of immorality around him by remaining an observer and by judging through his art.

The novel’s perspective is Tod’s, and though Tod does not consider himself an innocent, he is naïve, for every single character is more depraved than Tod had believed — not just lonely, not grotesques, but true monsters. Homer Simpson is not merely an Iowa hick; once betrayed, he becomes a violent killer, stomping to death a demonic child actor. Fay Greener, whom Tod loves and thinks of as a lost girl, is, at age 18, a hardened prostitute, a prototype for past, present, and future Heidi Fleisses. Fay’s lovers, a Texas cowboy and a Mexican promoter of cockfights, are not tough, colorful Westerners, but brutal and evil men. The dwarf Abe Kusich is clearly every bit as deformed in mind as in body. And Tod’s friend, the producer who calls his Chinese houseboy a “darkey” and who has designed his house to duplicate a Mississippi plantation mansion, is seen, finally, not as a person of humor but as a part of fraudulent sickness.

Tod Hackett is, at least to an extent, a self-portrait of the author, and it is West’s self-knowledge that makes his novel searing and its humor both eerie and tragic.

Nathanael West’s Los Angeles is loud, evil, sexually charged and sexually degraded, violent, lurid, murderous, and celebratory of falseness. Through Tod Hackett, West perceived the sickness of Los Angeles as a mirror of a national disease of senseless violence. “The Angelenos would be first [Hackett thinks], but their comrades all over the country would follow...”

However, for all of its brilliance, Locust is only a partial vision. West, so gifted at seeing through facades of decency, has no conception of the good. Everything and everyone is corrupt. In contrast, our greatest California writers have identified evil but have celebrated characters who are brave and selfless and, even in death, not defeated.

jody+hoy+tillieolsonTO READ TILLIE OLSEN is to enter the world that West left out of his fiction. Olsen’s four greatest stories, all collected in Tell Me a Riddle, delineate a world in which pain, always present, is met with courage, and tragedy, when it comes, is given dimension. Olsen’s characters are heroic. They argue, hurt, and disappoint one another, but because they care about each other, the stories of their lives offer the reader cleansing tears, genuine catharsis.

Three of the stories of Tell Me a Riddle are set in the working-class Potrero Hill district of San Francisco during the 1950s. The title story takes place in the Los Angeles of elderly poor Jews, who lived in the rooms and small apartments that bordered Santa Monica four decades ago.

Though more than a generation has passed since their publication, Olsen’s stories are timeless. They contain messages that are universal. “I Stand Here Ironing” examines the relationship of mother and daughter and demonstrates how triumph can come out of deprivation. “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” is a statement about friendship, the passage of time, and the obligation we owe our fallen companions. “Oh Yes” shows us how lines of color separate us not only from each other but often from the best part of ourselves. “Tell Me a Riddle” is a tribute to an affirmation of selfhood which, Olsen shows, has a claim equal to unselfish love.

These are painful stories to read, but the emotions they touch are not emotions to be denied, and the triumphs they applaud are worth remembering.

In “I Stand Here Ironing,” a life that could have ended in disaster has been saved by human resilience and courage. Helen, the mother in the story, is also the story’s narrator. Helen is a character who shares much of the author’s own biography, and she is an important figure in all four stories, a voice and point of view that connects disparate experiences. In “I Stand Here Ironing,” Helen has been deserted in Depression San Francisco and left with a young daughter, Emily, whom she has loved but has had to shunt about during childhood, depriving her of the essential protection every child deserves. Helen knows she has done her best by Emily, but also knows that Emily has been hurt. Touched by loneliness, poverty, anxiety, and loss, Emily has had a difficult time, even after Helen’s remarriage. Helen tells us:

I will never total it all... She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years... or I sent her home and to his relatives. They were years she hated... I was a young mother... I was a distracted mother. There were other children pushing up, demanding... There were years she did not want me to touch her....

And yet, the essential love of the mother for her daughter has been transmitted and reciprocated. Olsen shows us that a human being is more than an accumulation of hurts. Emily, 19 as the story concludes (the same age Helen was when Emily was born), has more than survived: She is a college student and a performer, a comedienne who has transformed pain into art, and has become a loving daughter. Helen, watching Emily from the ironing board, reviewing her and her daughter’s hard life, hopes that Emily will understand her sacrifices and thinks finally, “She is so lovely... She will find her way.”

“Hey Sailor, What Ship?” is, on the surface, the story of a sailor destroying himself through heavy drinking. On closer reading it is the story of more than one man, of a San Francisco Depression generation, the men and women who were young adults during the 1934 General Strike, the idealists who fought or supported those who fought Franco in Spain, the people who found hope amid hunger and brutality and despair. The story takes place during the 1950s when Whitey, the sailor, has only one link to family life — Helen and Lennie and their children, living in a small Potrero Hill house.

Lennie and Helen cannot give Whitey up, even as he hurts them with his drinking and anger, even as he embarrasses their children. The bond of what they once were is too real to break. To Lennie, he remained “a tie to adventure and a world in which “men had not eaten each other.... To Helen he was the compound of much help given, much support; the ear to hear, the hand that understands how much a scrubbed floor, or a washed dish, or a child taken care of for a while, can mean...”

Whitey mourns, in the privacy of his mind, the death of a dream. He thinks of the 1930s: “Understand. The death of the brotherhood. Once an injury to one is an injury to all. Once, once they had to live for each other...”

We are left with a mother and father and children, watching a lonely man walking in the fog down the hill away from the only home he will ever have. We are left with parents explaining to their children the meaning of friendship and the content of a dream, still shared.

“Oh Yes” is a story of loss. Helen and her black friend Alva arrange to have Helen’s daughter Carol invited to the baptism of Alva’s daughter, Parry. Yet what the two mothers hope will cement the children’s friendship drives the girls, already facing the racial divisiveness of junior high school, further apart. Carol faints during the church service, frightened by the emotionality of the congregation, and Parry tells Carol she did not want her in church at all, that she only invited her to please the mothers. The story ends with a statement by Carol and a silent message, in response, from Helen. “Mother, I want to forget about it all, and not care.... Why can’t I forget? Oh why is it like it is and why do I have to care?”

Helen thinks: “caring asks doing. It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched... Yet how will you sustain?”

“O Yes” reminds us of the difficulties of caring about others, of how we divide ourselves racially, of how difficult yet necessary it is for us to care.

“TELL ME A RIDDLE” takes the story of the all-giving and all-forgiving Jewish mother and grandmother and stands it on its head. A woman who has spent her life doing for others now, in her last year, dying of cancer, refuses to cater to her often selfish husband or to her concerned children and grandchildren. And her rage against the end of her life and the injustices of her life forces her husband and children to change, to understand a woman’s sacrifices and sacredness. Helen’s daughter Jeannie becomes the emotional translator between her grandmother and grandfather as her grandmother lies dying.

That last day the agony was perpetual. Time after time it lifted her almost off the bed, so they had to fight to hold her down. He could not endure and left the room; wept as if there never would be tears enough.

Jeannie came to comfort him. In her light voice she said, Granddaddy, Granddaddy, don’t cry. She is not there, she promised me. On the last day, she said she would go back to where she first heard music. A little girl on the road of the village where she was born... it is a wedding and they dance, while the flutes so joyous and vibrant tremble in the air... Granddaddy, it is all right... Come back, come back and help her poor body to die....

And thus a grandmother’s fierce assertion becomes, for grandfather and granddaughter, the occasion of final devotion. A woman’s life is recognized, tragically, only as she leaves it.

Those of us who are English teachers need, I think, to help students recognize the selfless and courageous among us. But we cannot deny, in literature or in life, the world Nathaniel West painted. Every high school senior who has attended a Friday night party has seen, after midnight, scenes that are right out of The Day of the Locust.

It is Olsen’s world to which we must aspire, for as long as we live. The young correctly are suspicious of sentimentality, but they must understand and recognize honest sentiment. They must learn the value of not giving up or giving in to despair. Tillie Olsen, herself, in an essay in Newsweek, January 3, 1994, said it best:

Sometimes the young — discouraged, overwhelmed — ask me incredulously: You mean you still have hope? And I hear myself saying, yes, I still have hope; beleaguered, starved, battered, based hope. Through horror, blood, betrayal, apathy, callousness, retreats, defeats — in every decade of my now 82-year-old life that hope has been tested, reaffirmed...

Marek Breiger’s new book is The City and the Fields: Mulitcultural Themes in Modern California Literature, from which this essay has been adapted. The book is available at our Pushcart. Marek has taught high-school English for thirty-three years and has published over forty essays dealing with California literature and life. He has won two Dorothy Wright Awards from San Jose State University for “contributions in promoting excellence in writing and love of literature.”