Form and Content
The Locusts Have No King is one of Dawn Powell’s most definitive portraits of the chaotic lives led by writers, artists, and other bohemians in Greenwich Village in the years immediately before and after World War II. Her characters strive for success yet seem to spend more time in romantic entanglements and hanging out in night spots than in actually performing any work. Although Frederick Olliver and Lyle Gaynor are serious about their work, Powell is considerably more interested in their private lives and gives only the barest of hints about what their writing entails. Her method of presenting their convoluted romances is to alternate their points of view with those of a chorus of interested observers, who often see Lyle and Frederick in a more critical light than they see themselves. As in many of her novels, Powell is more interested in her male protagonist than in her female characters. Yet Lyle is a woman of obviously stronger character than any of the men she encounters, though she is nevertheless unable to prevent becoming embroiled in emotional warfare in which no one wins. Powell’s women are much wiser than her men, who are, in varying degrees, naïve or arrogant regardless of their intellects.
The narrative jumps back and forth between scenes in the lives of Frederick and Lyle: He balances writing for Swan Quarterly and similar literary journals with editing the trashy humor magazine Haw, teaching bored adult students at the League for Cultural Foundations, and juggling his relations with Lyle and Dodo Brennan, while Lyle writes the plays credited to her and her husband, Allan (which he merely outlines), sees them through rehearsal, socializes with important figures in publishing and the arts, and conducts affairs first with Frederick and later with the hapless Edwin Stalk. Numerous scenes are set in the Greenwich Village bars loved by both Lyle and Murray Cahill, Frederick’s roommate, but only tolerated by Frederick himself. As in many of her novels, Powell’s characters seem to spend more time drinking and gossiping than doing anything else.