Homer Simpson’s Hands

There is a key character named Homer Simpson in Nathanael West’s 1939 Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.

Yes, d’oh, a name familiar to most.

 

Did Matt Groening name his Homer after West’s original? The information is somewhat contradictory, though Groening did state in interviews that he lifted the name from West’s novel. However, Groening’s father was also named Homer (Matt’s younger sisters were named Lisa and Maggie, not coincidentally), and he has stated in other interviews that the name was derived from his dear old dad. 

My guess is that both reports are true — influences and inspirations often arrive in layers, filtering in from a variety of sources. 

I recall reading Nathanael West as a very young man: A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust. He made a strong impression at the time, an original mind with an absurdist’s sense of satire. He was wickedly funny and intensely dark about the human condition. That appealed to me, too. 

I recently went back and reread those books, some 40 years later. My feeling is that if you read a book at a much earlier time in your life, it’s like you’ve never read it at all. That is, the reader’s perspective has been so transformed that it’s like encountering a brand new book (even though, of course, the book hasn’t changed a bit). The relationship between text-and-reader is made anew. 

While I enjoyed reading West again, and still consider myself very much a fan, there were passages that haven’t aged well. This is true of a depressing number of books, as we know. Time is not always kind. Values change. We’ve learned some things along the way. There’s an unsettling streak of misogyny here and there. Perhaps a function of the time, a flaw in West himself, or just part of his eviscerating, take-no-prisoners satire. He’s tough on everybody. Rape comes up: the word, the desire, the act. As a social satirist, West doesn’t judge, just presents. Those are not comfortable sections to read. Am I being too sensitive? Well, to be honest, that’s not a complaint, too sensitive, I often receive. In any event, West seems neglected today. 

Let’s call his work problematic and leave it at that for now. Others can sort out where West fits in the canon. (The Modern Library ranks Locust at  #73 in its list of the 100 Best Novels.)

Mostly, I want to highlight Homer Simpson’s amazing hands.

Here’s a snippet from possibly my favorite passage in all of West’s work. He provides us with some genius descriptions of this awkward, ill-at-ease, deeply repressed character who seems almost detached from his own hands:

“He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”

I can still remember encountering that section decades ago, that bizarre disconnection from his own body — a powerful metaphor for a character’s discomfort in his own skin, his own vibrating self.

He carried his hands into the bathroom.

God, that’s brilliant.

Nathanael West.

I confess that I’m pretty sure I tried to rip that off somewhere along the line, the idea of carrying one’s hands into the next room, etc., but I can’t for the life of me remember where it might appear. A Jigsaw Jones mystery for 2nd-grade readers? I don’t exactly recall. If I did borrow it, or quietly paid tribute to it — and I certainly hope I did — I had forgotten the source material at the time. It was just that remarkable idea lodged in my skull from a nearly-forgotten book.

Hands as strange aquatic animals.

The first time I read The Day of the Locusts, the animated Homer Simpson did not yet exist. It wasn’t until I came back to it that I realized, Oh, wow, Homer Simpson! I guess that’s where Groening got it.

“The Day of the Locust” was also a 1975 film starring Donald Sutherland (as Homer), Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith, and other fine actors. I’m going to rent it on Amazon Prime sometime soon. Sadly, Nathanael West’s promising career was cut short at the age of 37, when he died in a car crash just one short year after the publication of Locust

A tragedy that his work prepared us for.

 

 

 

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