The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West


“She went to the pictures with that Simpson guy,” Harry told him when he called to see her the next night.

He sat down to wait for her. The old man was very ill and lay on the bed with extreme care as though it were a narrow shelf from which he might fall if he moved.

“What are they making on your lot?” he asked slowly, rolling his eyes toward Tod without budging his head.

“‘Manifest Destiny,’ ‘Sweet and Low Down,’ ‘Waterloo,’ The Great Divide,’ Begging Your . . . ”

“‘The Great Divide’—” Harry said, interrupting eagerly. “I remember that vehicle.”

Tod realized he shouldn’t have got him started, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He had to let him run down like a clock.

“When it opened I was playing the Irving in a little number called ‘Enter Two Gents,’ a trifle, but entertainment, real entertainment. I played a Jew comic, a Ben Welch effect, derby and big pants —‘Pat, dey hollered me a chob in de Heagle Laundreh’ . . . ‘Faith now, Ikey, and did you take it?’ . . . ‘No, who vants to vash heagles?’ Joe Parvos played straight for me in a cop’s suit. Well, the night ‘The Great Divide’ opened, Joe was laying up with a whisker in the old Fifth Avenue when the stove exploded. It was the broad’s husband who blew the whistle. He was . . . ”

He hadn’t run down. He had stopped and was squeezing his left side with both hands.

Tod leaned over anxiously.

“Some water?”

Harry framed the word “no” with his lips, then groaned skillfully. It was a second-act curtain groan, so phony that Tod had to hide a smile. And yet, the old man’s pallor hadn’t come from a box.

Harry groaned again, modulating from pain to exhaustion, then closed his eyes. Tod saw how skillfully he got the maximum effect out of his agonized profile by using the pillow to set it off. He also noticed that Harry, like many actors, had very little back or top to his head. It was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn’t permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree.

Tod began to wonder if it might not be true that actors suffer less than other people. He thought about this for a while, then decided that he was wrong. Feeling is of the heart and nerves and the crudeness of its expression has nothing to do with its intensity. Harry suffered as keenly as anyone, despite the theatricality of his groans and grimaces.

He seemed to enjoy suffering. But not all kinds, certainly not sickness. Like many people, he only enjoyed the sort that was self-inflicted. His favorite method was to bare his soul to strangers in barrooms. He would make believe he was drunk, and stumble over to where some strangers were sitting. He usually began by reciting a poem.

“Let me sit down for a moment, I have a stone in my shoe. I was once blithe and happy, I was once young like you.”

If his audience shouted, “scram, bum!” he only smiled humbly and went on with his act.

“Have pity, folks, on my gray hair . . . ”

The bartender or someone else had to stop him by force, otherwise he would go on no matter what was said to him. Once he got started everyone in the bar usually listened, for he gave a great performance. He roared and whispered, commanded and cajoled. He imitated the whimper of a little girl crying for her vanished mother, as well as the different dialects of the many cruel managers he had known. He even did the off-stage noises, twittering like birds to herald the dawn of Love and yelping like a pack of bloodhounds when describing how an Evil Fate ever pursued him.

He made his audience see him start out in his youth to play Shakespeare in the auditorium of the Cambridge Latin School, full of glorious dreams, burning with ambition. Follow him, as still-a mere stripling, he starved in a Broadway rooming house, an idealist who desired only to share his art with the world. Stand with him, as, in the prime of manhood, he married a beautiful dancer, a headliner on the Gus Sun time. Be close behind him as, one night, he returned home unexpectedly to find her in the arms of a head usher. Forgive, as he forgave, out of the goodness of his heart and the greatness of his love. Then laugh, tasting the bitter gall, when the very next night he found her in the arms of a booking agent. Again he forgave her and again she sinned. Even then he didn’t cast her out, no, though she jeered, mocked and even struck him repeatedly with an umbrella. But she ran off with a foreigner, a swarthy magician fellow. Behind she left memories and their baby daughter. He made his audience shadow him still as misfortune followed misfortune and, a middle-aged man, he haunted the booking offices, only a ghost of his former self. He who had hoped to play Hamlet, Lear, Othello, must needs become the Co. in an act called Nat Plumstone & Co., light quips and breezy patter. He made them dog his dragging feet as, an aged and trembling old man, he . . .

Faye came in quietly. Tod started to greet her, but she put her finger to her lips for him to be silent and motioned toward the bed.

The old man was asleep. Tod thought his worn, dry skin looked like eroded ground. The few beads of sweat that glistened on his forehead and temples carried no promise of relief. It might rot, like rain that comes too late to a field, but could never refresh.

They both tiptoed out of the room.

In the hall he asked if she had had a good time with Homer.

“That dope!” she exclaimed, making a wry face. “He’s strictly home-cooking.”

Tod started to ask some more questions, but she dismissed him with a curt, “I’m tired, honey.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02