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Funny as a Crutch

Nathanael West

by Robert Emmet Long
Frederick Ungar, 202 pp. (1985; out of print)

1.

Nathanael West (1903–1940) published four novels, wrote many screenplays, and left strewn about among his papers “Unpublished Writings and Fragments.” West had the masochist’s subtle attachment to his failures, a recognition which is, in its fashion, somehow self-affirming. He reports that the income from his first three novels was $780: if one keeps accounts, woefully true, but, in a stretch, like Byron hobbling about on his lame foot and swimming the Hellespont. In a letter to Edmund Wilson:

I forget the broad sweep, the big canvas, the shot-gun adjectives, the important people, the significant ideas, the lessons to be taught, the epic Thomas Wolfe, the realistic James Farrell…. The proof of all this is that I’ve never had the same publisher twice—once bitten, etc.—because there is nothing to root for in my books and what is even worse, no rooters. Maybe they’re right. My stuff goes from the presses to the drug stores.

Biographical and critical studies appear, important reviews, if not in a flood, an impressive stream of recognition. And yet, it is the practice of critics to lament the neglect of Nathanael West, despite the daunting accumulation. West, sly hypochondriac that he was, puts the critics in the position of a crusading doctor reviving the moribund. It may be that West is not so much neglected as unread while more or less well known, a condition obscure and not subject to arithmetic. High reputation and, as the decades pass, the name honored, but the interest, the readers, the glare fading except for graduate students ever in the stacks seeking a “fresh” topic.

Remember Edward Dahlberg, author of Bottom Dogs, with an introduction by D.H. Lawrence, many other books and in particular Because I Was Flesh, a dazzling autobiography, starring, so to speak, his mother, a lady barber with her chair, her clippers and talc. Perhaps it was Dahlberg’s misfortune to have Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway as contemporaries.

And there is the case of Willa Cather of Nebraska and Ellen Glasgow of Richmond, Virginia. Willa Cather is still a bright, commanding figure; Ellen Glasgow, honored and read in her time, is but dimly flickering now. True, breaking the sod and hustling cattle out west is more riveting than the manners of Richmond with echoes of Henry James, an old pioneer only in matters of nuance. Nathanael West’s “neglect” is not so striking. He is like the boy in the orphanage who, when the lads pass by, will be adopted by the town mayor but, after a time, not quite what was wanted and so returned to the line with his curls and snappy come-backs, there to be “placed” once again.

A letter to Fitzgerald:

My dear Mr. Fitzgerald, You have been kind enough to say that you liked my novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. I am applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship and I need references for it. I wonder if you would be willing to let me use your name as a reference? It would be enormously valuable to me…. I know very few people, almost none whose names would mean anything to the committee…. If you can see your way to do this, it would make me very happy.

Fitzgerald responded, naming West as a “potential leader in the field of prose fiction.” Other supporting letters were written by Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson. The application was rejected. West’s biographer, Robert Emmet Long, tells of him at a boys’ camp in the Adirondacks: “He tried out for baseball, but was the sort of boy who, in fielding a fly, would be struck by the ball on the forehead and fall to the ground, which did, in fact, once happen to him.” There you have it.

His first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, is not designed to please, beginning perhaps with the choice of the peculiar name “Snell” for the central character. Snell somehow finds himself in the ancient city of Troy, where he comes upon the famous wooden horse of the Greeks. The only way to enter the horse for his journey is by way of the alimentary canal. “O Anus Mirabilis!” A work of only some fifty pages, it is a dazzling parade of literary and cultural references written when the author was only twenty-six years old, years spent apparently reading everything in the public library. Balso’s guide in the classical journey through the intestine argues with him about Daudet, Picasso, and Cézanne, “the sage of Aix.” Fleeing the contentious guide, Balso comes upon a man, naked except for a derby with thorns sticking out, who is “attempting to crucify himself with thumb tacks.”

The man is Maloney the Areopagite, who is writing a biography of Saint Puce, a flea who was “born, lived, and died, beneath the arm of our Lord.” Then he meets a young man named John Gilson who calls himself John Raskolnikov Gilson, has a Crime Journal in which he tells of murdering an idiot, a dishwasher at the Hotel Astor, the incident a sort of camp, homely version of Crime and Punishment, since this Raskolnikov is Class 8B, Public School 186. The book ends with the thoughts of a young man imagining the suicide of his girlfriend, Janey, who is pregnant. Her young man says, “Suicide is a charming affectation on the part of a young Russian, but in you, dear Janey, it is absurd.” Janey’s mother, seeing her daughter threatening to jump from a window, says: “Go away from that window—fool! You’ll catch your death-cold or fall out—clumsy!”

The Dream Life of Balso Snell was published by Contact Press, a small, avant-garde group based in Paris. It had been recommended by William Carlos Williams, then an editor at the press. The book is generally thought to be a failure and on first reading one is inclined to agree. However, on a second reading, the book gains in vitality, originality, and perhaps bravado. West’s novels are offered as satires, asking the reader to have knowledge about what is being satirized: here, it is literary criticism, popular culture and its clichés, popular Christianity, and other matters. Along the way, there is a satirical aside about biography. A schoolteacher, Miss McGeeney, is writing a biography of Samuel Perkins, the biographer of E.F. Fitzgerald. Miss McGeeney explains:

And who is Fitzgerald? You are of course familiar with D.B. Hobson’s life of Boswell. Well, E.F. Fitzgerald is the author of a life of Hobson. The subject of my biography, Samuel Perkins, wrote a life of Fitzgerald…. Perkins’ face was dominated by his nose. This fact I have ascertained from a collection of early photographs lent me by a profound admirer of Perkins and a fellow practitioner of his art. I refer to Robert Jones, author of a book called Nosolgie.

She continues: “It seems to me that someone must surely take the hint and write the life of Miss McGeeney, the woman who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of the man who wrote the biography of Boswell.” This is lighthearted enough, but Balso’s passage through the landscape is a malodorous journey peopled with the misshapen and deformed, described with what might be called inspired relish. The suicidal Janey begins as a pregnant hunchback, carrying her baby in the sack. The novel is a masturbatory dream, written with the cleverness that is sometimes spoken of as too-clever-by-half.

Nathanael West had some difficulty deciding just who he was in the literal sense. He was born Nathan Weinstein, which didn’t quite suit his idea of himself. His first improvement was to change Nathan, not to Nathaniel, as in Hawthorne, but to the curious Nathanael, the alteration giving the common name a mysterious and somehow glamorous ring. When he was asked by Edmund Wilson how Weinstein became West—the answer: “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go west, young man. So I did.’” In any case, he became Nathanael West legally in 1926 when he was twenty-three years old. His maternal family was named Wallenstein and came from what is now Lithuania. His father, Max Weinstein, was also Russian and both families migrated to the United States in the 1880s. The father became a successful New York builder, first of tenements on the Lower East Side and later of more advanced and spacious buildings in upper Manhattan. Their son, the author, was born at 151 East 81st Street.

In a way that was typical of refined and ambitious families, young Nathan was sent to a progressive school, P.S. 81, that stressed “creativity.” He didn’t do well there and transferred to another, later entering the competitive DeWitt Clinton High School, from which he failed to graduate. As a natural con man, he added six credits to his transcript and thus was accepted at Tufts University. There he joined a fraternity and had a good time but failed in all his subjects. Then he happened upon the transcript of another Nathan Weinstein with better marks, which allowed him to transfer to Brown University as a sophomore. There he sometimes went by the name of Nathanael von Wallenstein Weinstein. At Brown, his friendship with S.J. Perelman began. He wrote for the college paper, made drawings, and even seemed somewhat preppy in his Brooks Brothers suits. He also managed to contract gonorrhea.

West, a sort of genteel con man in his youth, will in his fiction create characters inclined to sly improvements on the limitations of the given. In the memories of his friends, he appears rather shy and reserved and quietly likable. Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman, Scott Fitzgerald were lifelong friends. S.J. Perelman married his sister. True, his sense of the main chance was always there to be exploited; when he was manager of the Sutton Club Hotel with its empty rooms, we find Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, James T. Farrell, and others happily in line for free lodgings. Before that, Uncle Saul and Uncle Charles had somehow been prevailed upon to fund a trip to Paris. After his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, he was employed in Hollywood at a respectable salary. His early love affairs had a way of collapsing from inanition on his part. Supposed to meet Beatrice Mathieu, a fashion writer for The New Yorker, in Paris for a confirmation of their engagement, he failed “to show.” Another backed out when she learned he had slept with Lillian Hellman. At last he married Eileen McKenney, the subject of a popular book by her sister, Ruth McKenney. Both were killed when West ran through a stop sign outside El Centro, California. He was thirty-seven years old.

2.

Miss Lonelyhearts, a masterwork, came about when he met a woman who wrote a lovelorn column for the Brooklyn Eagle. She read out some of the letters she had received and West was inspired to create a man, using the name “Miss Lonelyhearts,” for a New York paper. The letters at the beginning of the novel are “stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.”

…I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much. My husband thinks no woman can be a good catholic and not have children irregardless of the pain…. I have 7 children in 12 yrs and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. I was operated on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice…. I am going to have a baby…. I am so sick and scared…. I cant have an abortion on account of being a catholic….

Another letter:

I am writing to you for my little sister Gracie because something awfull hapened to her…. Gracie is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart on account of being deaf and dumb…. Mother makes her play on the roof because we dont want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her…. I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby…. If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awfull…when she tore her dress they locked her in the closet for 2 days…. So please what would you do if the same happened in your family.

Miss Lonelyhearts, he is given no other name, looks like the son of a Baptist minister although he is a “New England puritan” and something of a Christer. Shrike, an editor at the paper, is a voluble, cynical, barroom orator at the speakeasy, Delehanty’s, where the newsmen gather. As Miss Lonelyhearts begins to find the letters neither funny nor stupid, he thinks he should tell the forlorn and miserable to find comfort in Christ. Shrike thinks otherwise:

Miss Lonelyhearts, my friend, I advise you to give your readers stones. When they ask for bread don’t give them crackers as does the Church, and don’t, like the State, tell them to eat cake. Explain that man cannot live by bread alone and give them stones. Teach them to pray each morning: “Give us this day our daily stone.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is not so much complex as complicated. As an educated young man from New England, successful in New York, he is nevertheless carrying a lot of baggage from home: his Christian roots, a certain provincial suspiciousness. In search of experience, he visits Betty, a cheerful, willing girl. Instead of seducing her, he rants about Christ and suffering humanity. As he goes on, Betty will say: “What’s the matter?… Are you sick?” Her final words are: “I felt swell before you came, and now I feel lousy. Go away. Please go away.”

Next, he visits Shrike and his wife, Mary. She wants to go out and Miss Lonelyhearts takes her to a place called El Gaucho. Mary’s theme song, as it were, is: My mother died of breast cancer. She died leaning over a table. Back at the front door of her apartment, he tears at her clothes until she is naked under her fur coat. Unfortunately, the door opens and Shrike is in the corridor. “He had on only the top of his pajamas.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is hopeless as a lover, and the scenes of seduction are always unappetizing, comic perhaps, but withering. West’s talent speeds everything along with a felicitous assurance that is devastating to romance. The hope of appropriate feeling is as futile as the hope for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. His ear for the language, his gift for the landscape of foolishness and deceit are so offhand and accurate they do not alienate. In life, there was that vexatious, crummy family next door and yet you would be alarmed if they weren’t all there on the front porch the next day. West is spoken of as “pessimistic” and perhaps he is. On the other hand, he doesn’t bring to mind attitudes or preconceptions about life. He is wild, imaginative, and for all the mishaps in his pages and the comic drive, he is a reporter covering a fire and then going out for a beer.

At Delehanty’s, Miss Lonelyhearts will meet his final correspondent—Peter Doyle, a cripple whose job is reading meters for the gas company. It turns out Doyle has written Miss Lonelyhearts a letter, unmailed, but now taken out of his pocket. The letter wants to know what it’s all about. Going up and down stairs for $2.50 per. Doctors have told him to rest his leg. He’s always in pain. “It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel of defiant originality. West introduces suffering characters and scarcely a one arouses sympathy. They are liars, clumsily crafty, their pose of weakness self-serving. Miss Lonelyhearts goes about his sexual seductions in a cold, unfeeling manner; and, with it all, he is obsessed with Christ. W.H. Auden, in an essay entitled “West’s Disease,” reprinted in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, is deeply offended by the novel, experiencing a sort of pedantic frisson. First: self-help newspaper columns are written by people who “give the best advice they can.” Miss Lonelyhearts, with the ivory Christ hanging in his room, is not the sort to apply for a gossip column and if he did, no “editor would hire him.” Shrike is a

Mephisto who spends all his time exposing to his employees the meaninglessness of journalism…. Such a man, surely, would not be a Feature Editor long…. A high percentage of the inhabitants are cripples, and the only kind of personal relation is the sado-masochistic.

And: West is not a satirist.

Satire presupposes conscience and reason as the judges between the true and the false, the moral and immoral, to which it appeals, but for West these faculties are themselves the creators of unreality…. West’s descriptions of Inferno have the authenticity of firsthand experience: he has certainly been there, and the reader has the uncomfortable feeling that his was not a short visit.

Auden, who cannot have read many advice columns, was publicly known as a communicant of the Episcopal Church, a return in his celebrated genius to the church of his English boyhood. The “religiosity” of Miss Lonelyhearts appears to have been an annoyance to him. West, an American Jew, was amused by the Methodists and Baptists who may have been liars and cheats while rooted in their down-home Christianity. He is amazed, amused, and thoughtful about them in a way that was too atheistic, skeptical, and “modern” for Auden. The novel is a triumph of local observation by a keen eye and ear and a rhythmical style. There is nothing quite like it in our literature.

3.

John D. Rockefeller would give a cool million to have a stomach like yours.”

—Old Saying

Thus the heading of West’s third novel, A Cool Million. It is often read as a satire on the popular Horatio Alger books. Horatio, on his way to make his fortune in the world and save the old homestead, is cheated, mocked, preyed upon, but rises in his youthful American rectitude and perseverance to outwit his persecutors, good boy that he is. West’s hero is persecuted, robbed, lied to, and hideously mutilated from head to foot. His passage through life is indeed painful to read. Scarcely a comedy, if that was the intent, in scene after scene of “dismantmantling.” The novel begins with a masterly tonal memory of the sentimental fiction of the period:

The home of Mrs. Sarah Pitkin, a widow well on in years, was situated on an eminence overlooking the Rat River, near the town of Ottsville in the state of Vermont. It was a humble dwelling much the worse for wear, yet exceedingly dear to her and to her only child, Lemuel. While the house had not been painted for some time…it still had a great deal of charm. An antique collector, had one chanced to pass by, would have been greatly interested in its architecture.

The tale goes along in the rocky way of West’s imagination: Mrs. Pitkin, behind in her mortgage payments of 12 percent interest, is threatened with foreclosure. This came about by way of Asa Goldstein, proprietor of Colonial Exteriors and Interiors, “who planned to take the house apart and set it up again in the window of his Fifth Avenue shop.” Lem goes to see “Shagpoke” Whipple, once president of the United States and now president of the Rat River National Bank. Lem is advised to go out in the world and make money. On the train he is robbed by well-dressed gentlemen, one of whom will accidentally drop a diamond ring in his pocket, causing the bumpkin to be arrested and sent to prison. Once he is free again, Chicago, socialist, anarchist, and fascist groups of the period appear as part of the crowded background. Along the way, if so it is to be expressed, Lem will lose his left hand, a leg is cut off at the knee, an eye removed in prison for fear it might become infected.

Betty, wandering in from the previous novel, is kidnapped by Italians and sold to a Chinaman who runs a whorehouse with girls of all nations, each set up in suites suitable for their native countries. Betty’s rooms are American colonial with ships in bottles, carved whalebone, and hooked rugs. Betty’s first client is a “pockmarked Armenian rug merchant from Malta.” And Lem, bereft of teeth, thumb, leg, scalp, and one eye, is shot through the heart. But in the spirit of Horatio Alger, the final line is: “All hail, the American Boy!”

A wasteful brilliance perhaps, a treacherous revision of classical comedies in which the clown is knocked about, stamped on, but gets up, tips his hat, and walks off the stage, A Cool Million was written in 1933 and published in 1934. It can be read as a Depression novel, set in the time when men on the bread lines were “stripped” of their worldly goods. West took “stripping” with a devastating literalness. The novel did not do well—too many chopped-off body parts for bedside reading. Yet it is an achievement, written in a prose of glittering, unexpected adjectives before the required noun.

Hollywood: The Day of the Locust. In West’s fiction there is landscape, but not of trees, grassy plains, sunsets on the horizon. His landscape is houses, rooms, bars, and their contents. West is like a decorator with a pad—chintz here, solid color there; no, perhaps a bit of tweed. His narrator, Tod Hackett, graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, is brought to Hollywood to learn set and costume designing. His story begins with the streets of the peculiar city:

An army of cavalry and foot was passing. It moved like a mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing from some terrible defeat…. Tod recognized the scarlet infantry of England with their white shoulder pads, the black infantry of the Duke of Brunswick, the French grenadiers with their enormous white gaiters, the Scotch with bare knees under plaid skirts…. But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses…Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages…. On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights…. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

There are no screen stars in this Hollywood novel, but the city and the movies inhabit these settlers, as if they were left from the wagon trains that pulled Americans west. The characters are the story just by being who they are, most of them living in the shabby apartment house with Tod—the San Bernardino Arms, known as the San Berdoo.

Faye Greener, the heroine of the novel, when the term means the center of attention. Faye is a bad girl in the sense of small-town gossips; that is, one who “puts out.” She is beautiful, “shiny as a new spoon,” only seventeen, but as experienced as Moll Flanders. In movietown her credits are meager: an extra in a two-reel farce, but she’s hoping for a break. She sings in her pretty voice, “Jeepers Creepers! Where’d you get those peepers?” When drunk, “Dreamed about a reefer five feet long.” Tod pursues her, but when he tries to seduce her, she says she doesn’t want to be messed up. In addition, she can’t see that Tod could further her career.

Faye is, somewhat unaccountably, hooked up with a fellow named Homer Simpson, suggesting “simpleton,” perhaps. Homer, hotel booking clerk, now retired and living in a house across the street from the Berdoo. He is from the Middle West, from a little town near Des Moines, Iowa: a hick, in Faye’s accurate naming, but one who buys her things, takes her to the movies, and is incapable of sex, a convenience, along with his nerdy love of her. “But whether he was happy or not is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither.” Homer, after an illness, is told to get some sunshine and so it’s off to California and Hollywood. Homer doesn’t belong in Hollywood. Old as he is, he’s like a child left in a gas station toilet while the parents, thinking him in the back seat, drive away. He’s a stumbling, vivid creation, genuine as a nickel.

Harry Greener, Faye’s father, once in vaudeville, now selling door-to-door Miracle solvent, a furniture polish of his own devising. But Harry is now sick, dying, his death you might call an opportunity for a funeral scene. In his “box,” he’s “wearing a Tuxedo …his eyebrows shaped and plucked and his lips and cheeks rouged. He looked like the interlocutor in a minstrel show.” Faye, looking beautiful in her black dress, “platinum” hair under a black straw sailor. “Every so often, she carried a tiny lace handkerchief to her eyes and made it flutter there for a moment.” Residents of the Berdoo are in attendance and the Gingo family (too?), Eskimos brought to Hollywood for a picture about polar exploration. Unfortunately, an electric organ plays a record of Bach’s chorale, “Come Redeemer, Our Saviour.” That doesn’t go down well with the assembled mourners. There is an invitation to review the remains, not very beckoning except to the Gingos.

Earle Shoop: cowboy from Arizona, occasionally worked in horse operas. Six feet tall, Stetson hat, boots with three-inch heels, always broke, he stages an appalling, murderous cock fight. In the end, Earle and Faye go off to the sunset or to the trailer park.

The final chapter of The Day of the Locust is a painful, dazzling scene of the mob outside a theater, waiting for the celebrities to arrive for the première of an important film. West steps aside for an intrusion of his general thoughts about Americans, some of them, at least:

They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment. All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs…. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?… They get tired of oranges…. They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all…. [Newspapers and movies] fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars…. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates…. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

Tod Hackett, the Yale man, is caught in the mob, his leg painfully injured. He, foolish aesthete from New England, is standing on a rail, trying to sketch the scene for a painting to be called “The Burning of Los Angeles.” What is burning is “a corinthian column that held up a palmleaf roof of a nutburger stand.” The Day of the Locust was published in an edition of 3,000 copies. 1,464 copies sold. That’s the story for a masterpiece.

Nathanael West’s stunning four novels are American tales, rooted in our transmogrifying soil. Morality plays they are, classified as comedies. They are indeed often funny. Funny as a crutch.

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