"The Burning of Los Angeles" and the New Yorker Nathanael West

"I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic." - Andy Warhol

To recover from a busy few days of guests, I've been sitting in front of the TV and knitting while watching California burn.

While I look at the images of the fiery hills, I think of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, the apocalyptic novel set in southern California. The protagonist is a frustrated scenic designer named Tod Hackett who spends his energy painting a large canvas titled The Burning of Los Angeles. Although I sometimes think I'm a seasoned and sophisticated urbanite, I was truly shocked when I read the book. I'll never forget his sardonic portrayal of the vacuous lives of the vacant people who had "come to California to die."

Nathanael West (1903-1940) was a New Yorker, born the son of German Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He faked his way into college, first at Tufts and then at Brown. There he met S. J. Perelman who married West's sister. Changing his name from Nathan Weinstein to the more WASPy West in 1926, the writer lived in Paris a few years and then returned to New York where he managed a couple of small hotels. His first major work, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), satirizes New York during the Depression. West then moved to Los Angeles, joining the talented literary workforce there working on Hollywood screenplays. The Day of the Locust (1939) is considered a defining work about the California experience.

Like many New Yorkers, West never learned to properly drive. He and his new wife, Eileen (famous as the subject of My Sister Eileen from 1938), died in December 1940 in a car accident near El Centro, California. West ran a stop sign, and some believe that he was distracted and distraught after learning of the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald who had died of a heart attack just the day before.

Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney are buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens.

Image: Photo of CNN coverage of California fires. October 23, 2007

No comments: