Nathanael West’s A Cool Million was published on this day in 1934. Harold Bloom later put A Cool Million on his list of the Western canon as a worthy representative of “The Chaotic Age” and a satire prescient enough to “outlive many of the more celebrated visions” of twentieth-century America. All West’s biographers note the irony that this novel, too dark and undiluted to ever be popular, did even less for his own fame and fortune than his other books.
A dark satire of the typical Horatio Alger story, done in the style of Punch & Judy or Madmagazine, West’s novel is subtitled “The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin.” Having left his home in Vermont to seek his fortune in New York City, Lemuel experiences a progression of losses — first his pocket money, finally his life — along the way his scalp, all his teeth, one eye, one thumb, and one leg. Throughout, the ever-plucky Lem sees opportunity around each corner, even in his last job as stooge in the Riley and Robbins comedy act — “Fifteen Minutes of Furious Fun with Belly Laffs Galore,” requiring only Lem’s cooperation in his own victimization:
At this both actors turned on Lem and beat him violently over the head and body with their rolled-up newspapers. Their object was to knock off his toupee or to knock out his [false] teeth and eye. When they had accomplished one or all of these goals, they stopped clubbing him. Then Lem, whose part it was not to move while he was being hit, bent over and with sober dignity took from the box at his feet, which contained a large assortment of false hair, teeth and eyes, whatever he needed to replace the things that had been knocked off or out.
Lem thinks this is a pretty good job, and the crowds enjoy it enormously, but when he is duped into an affiliation with fascist revolutionaries and then tries to make a political speech, this goes so far beyond his allotted fifteen minutes of fame — West’s book predated Warhol’s famous coinage by three decades — that a political fanatic shoots him dead. This, in a final twist, secures Lem everlasting glory: the triumphant, leather-shirted fascists manage to martyrize him as a hero of the downtrodden and the true-blue American Boy.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.