What is most interesting about the juxtaposition of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is that each is a mirror of the other, and a mirror of what it pretends to be. If that seems convoluted, consider this: West has written fiction that nonetheless plumbs the depths of individual souls, souls that could be taken as representative of all souls. Smith has written 'true accounts' (as true as things remembered can be at some distance from the events themselves) that nonetheless fail to illumine deeply any facet of human emotion. That is to say, they are facile. Her interview with an old Hispanic who hates 'gringos' is too trite to be illuminating. Nor is the book filled with much that is.
The Day of the Locust and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, are nominally both about dreams deferred. In the case of The Day of the Locust, the dreams in question are those of very individual fictional characters. In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith makes a leap toward explaining the deferred dreams of all African-Americans, basing her claim to that deferral on the issue of the beating of Rodney King. Unfortunate as that beating may have been, when Smith wrote her account, it was not yet generally known that King was not the choirboy he was originally painted to be. That is no excuse for police brutality, of course, but it does dampen the ardor with which a reader can accept the hundreds of interviews Smith conducted as reflective of reality. They may be reflective of someone's instantaneous truth, but certainly they are not reflective of deep human longings, passions and disappointments, as is the work of Nathanael West.
Tod Hackett, the main character in The Day of the Locust, envisions his role in life as one of the great portrait painter of a less-than-brave new world. While his 'day job' is designing sets for whatever the studio desires, something his friends from Yale see as a loss of status, Tod himself wants to paint the anger, the bitterness, the disappointment and the hopelessness of Midwesterners who expected to become stars and/or millionaires overnight in the golden West. He may not personally have come to grips with the concept of dreams deferred -- or perhaps more accurately, destroyed -- but he is certainly intellectually engaged with the concept. Indeed, he is more intellectually engaged with it than personally. When his unrequited lust for Faye causes him to almost become a rapist, it does not dawn on him that, as an observer, he has become far too close to the subject matter with which he concerned himself.
On the other hand, Anna Deavere Smith, who proclaims as certain independence of vision by virtue of being an artist, cannot see the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots through anything like a dispassionate eye; despite that, her accounts are ungraceful, mired in an unreality that bears the stamp of knee-jerk liberalism far more than the stamp of what one might call passionate artistic journalism that she pretends they enjoy.
Rudy Salas, Sr., is the next in a long line of Mexicans who have been beaten in America by mobs or cops. Indeed, he was beaten by the police, as was his son, a Stanford student. Does this speak to the character of life in America, for Mexican-Americans, European-Americans, or anyone else? Probably not. After all, Salas' grandfather had ridden with Pancho Villa. The Salas family is clearly out of the ordinary, and not because they are lightning rods for police brutality. Rather, they seem to involve themselves in affairs in which over-reaction by someone is almost a foregone conclusion. Because her entire work is filled with characters who are clearly outside the mainstream of African-American or any 'minority American" life, it is slanted far more than West's work could pretend to be.
Particularly ludicrous is the story of Chung Lee, a Korean storeowner. Smith begins it with the information, in Korean and English, that Lee's store has been looted. Perhaps the only true expression in this story is that Chung Lee, realizing a riot had begun and his merchandise destroyed, gave up all sense of attachment to it. This is particularly Eastern; it sheds more light on the culture Lee came from than on the one he is in. And certainly, it does nothing to reveal the 'everyman' quality of dreams deferred/destroyed. It is dispassionate both in the telling by Smith and in the reaction by Lee. That, in itself, is un-American, a fact that cannot be doubted if anyone has watched TV news interviewing people in response to actual riots or other civil upheavals. Whether it is the camera in front of them that causes the abundance of tears and anguish, one cannot know; one cannot know what happens when the cameras stop rolling.
This is precisely the problem with Smith's work: the cameras are rolling, skewing the results of her so-called 'research.' In this respect, West's 'research' is far more revealing concerning both the origin of riots and the reactions of people to their realization that their dreams have been deferred. In this sense, however, 'deferred' can be taken to mean the same thing as the words 'developmentally delayed' when applied to unfortunates who could live to be 1,000 years old and not catch up with those of ordinary intellectual abilities. This may sound politically incorrect; the fact is, however, that developmentally delayed is simply a euphemism designed to soften the blow for the victims of cruel fate and their families, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as one knows the true meaning of the phrase. Just so, referring to dreams deferred in the case of Tod and Homer and pretty much anyone else in The Day of the Locust is euphemistic. None of them is ever going to see their dreams come to fruition; they are all undeniably hopeless.
Smith's characters are not hopeless, although she paints them so. Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles at the time of the King verdict, speaking of his appeal to the public not to riot, sounds pitiable. By the time the verdict is read, it does not matter what that verdict is: if the police officers had been found guilty, perhaps the minorities would not have rioted, but perhaps the majority would have been obnoxious enough about it to cause a riot anyway. And maybe not. There is no way of knowing what might have been, and in this sense, too, Smith's work is weaker at shedding light on the human condition than is the fiction of Nathanael West.
Smith is engaging in 'personal journalism' of the most transparent sort, although she takes pains not to admit that. She attempts to convince the reader that she is simply illuminating how things are by interviewing female gang members. But these, too, are society outcasts. While Tod and Homer and Faye are not particularly admirable in any way, neither are they so far outside the bounds of ordinary Los Angeles society (and note, it is Los Angeles society that is in question, then as now anything but ordinary in a Midwestern, or even eastern sense) that their stories have to be viewed as exceptions, rather than 'everyman.' Smith's characters, from the former mayor of the city to a man who lost his sight and used the money he received in damages to carry on the struggle against police brutality, are not ordinary, and they can most certainly be viewed as actors in the drama surrounding rioting and civil disobedience. They are at cause; they are not merely victims.
On the other hand, the riot in the final scenes of The Day of the Locust is neither caused by nor directed toward the characters West is using to expose some truths about the human condition. True, Tod is at the center of the mob when it begins to move; he is even kicked. But rather than escalate the violence, Tod laughs it off and takes a seat on the sidelines to watch. In a sense, he is much more an observer (as West's alter ego, perhaps) than is Smith as she batters a group of atypical stories of bogus lives into a fabric of half-truths; because she does not acknowledge her role as editor -- whereas West's role as 'editor' is inherent, it is impossible to view her work as non-fiction. Because she has carefully selected speakers who will support her in her campaign against the America of a brief moment in the last part of the 20th century, she has lost the ability to claim she is an observer. West is an observer of the generalized human condition, making up some seedy characters to display it rather than trolling for the damaged, disadvantaged and disillusioned to display.
It is not hard to see why either author would use the burning of Los Angeles as a metaphor…