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From Barnes & NobleThe Hotel Nathanael West
The Library of America's "historic endeavor" is to preserve America's "most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions. Oh no! you think. Not another volume of Henry James! But the Library of America is anything but predictable. Indeed it does publish James. And Melville. And even Abraham Lincoln. But last year it also printed a gorgeous two-volume set of Raymond Chandler. This summer it issued classic noir in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. Now it's presenting the complete Nathanael West, America's first cult writer. Consider him a cross between Camus and Dorothy Parker -- as well as my patron saint.
This delicious volume contains not only West's four published novels (including Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust) but also a selection of his letters (to Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and others), as well as "Other Writings" and "Unpublished Writings and Fragments." That last selection includes West's outline for the "racket" novel he intended to start writing in 1940 after he returned to Los Angeles from a quail hunt in Mexico. He never wrote the book. Just north of the border, West's station wagon ran a stop sign and got creamed by a Pontiac. The writer died, along with his bride of eight months; the only survivors of the wreck were West's dog, Julie, and the man's quirky prose.
Although West's books were odd ducks -- F. Scott Fitzgerald once lamented that West was "doomed to the underworld of literature" -- they were never forgotten. Year after year, each built a steady readership, until three decades after his death, high school students (like me) were required to study West's work.
Now that he's free of the "underworld," it can be told that West wasn't his real name. He was born Nathan Wallenstein-Weinstein in New York City in 1903. As a kid, his nickname was "Pep." When he turned 23, he changed his name because, as he later joked to his friend, William Carlos Williams: "Horace Greeley said, 'Go West, young man.' So I did." As for Nathanael, he chose that spelling of Nathaniel because the Nat-with-an-a was an "evil" character in the Bible. (Pep was wrong; Nathanael was actually Saint Bartholomew.)
Why West wanted to honor evil is another story, but his new name first turned up on the passport he used to go to Paris in 1926 to hang out with the French surrealists. He returned to New York later that year to begin his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (published in 1931), a work the founder of surrealism, André Breton, would label, "humour noir."
West worked on the book from 1927 to 1929. He had scored a job as the night manager of a hotel on 23rd Street and offered free rooms to writer pals such as Dashiell Hammett. Dash finished his Sam Spade novel The Maltese Falcon there while West banged out his Balso Snell story. Not that Snell is a private dick like Spade. Instead, he's a Trojan poet who walks into the, uh, "mystic portal" (anus) of the Trojan horse and has adventures in its belly.
In 1929 West met a woman who wrote an advice-to-the-lovelorn newspaper column that inspired his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts ("Miss Lonelyhearts" is actually a he). When the novel was published, in 1933, critics called it "sordid." This prompted William Carlos Williams to write, "How much longer will it take, I wonder, for America to build up a cultural ice of sufficient thickness to bear a really first-rate native author?"
While that "first-rate native author" was working on Lonelyhearts, he was unofficially engaged to a fashion model. I can imagine this girl writing her own "Lonelyhearts" letter:
"Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, I am a beautiful fashion model. My fiancée just deceived me by spending the night with that dog-faced writer, Lillian Hellman. Are all first-rate native authors this deceitful?"
Probably. Pep befriended many fellow "native" writers in both Manhattan and Hollywood (where he worked off and on writing screenplays). His buddies included Dorothy Parker, John O'Hara, and William Faulkner (who always referred to Pep as "Mr. West" when they hunted wild boars, because of some obscure southern hunting etiquette).
In the mid-'30s, West published his demented takeoff on Horatio Alger, A Cool Million. A few years later, in 1938, he completed The Day of the Locust, his undeniable masterpiece. With this work, West created his own genre: Hollywood Apocalypse. The novel concerns the fates of Faye (a Hollywood extra), Abe (a Hollywood dwarf), and Homer Simpson (yes, this Homer coming 60 years before you-know-who).
I used to think that I knew West's work backward and forward, but this volume contains a poem I'd never read, entitled "Burn the Cities," which I realized was the inspiration for "The Burning of Los Angeles" -- a painting that figures prominently in Locust. The volume also has letters West wrote to Locust's editor, Bennett Cerf, that illustrate the novel-writing process. West writes: "I will cut the ["Europa and Bull-fiddle" episode] down to the nub...taking out the part where [the cellist] kisses the neck of the cello and makes it groan in reply...."
My favorite letter is one West wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1939, after Fitzgerald praised his work: "Somehow or other I seem to have slipped in between all the 'schools,'" West says. "My books meet no needs except my own....Your [praise] made me feel that they weren't completely private and maybe not even entirely jokes."
In that spirit, I'd like to share something private with you (a fantasy, not a joke): Surely somewhere in midtown Manhattan there stands the Hotel Nathanael West. Where writers flop for free and finish their novels. Where the elevator is manned by Miss Lonelyhearts. And the bellboys are all Eskimos (in honor of the Eskimo family in Day of the Locust). Finally, instead of Gideon's Bibles, copies of West: Novels & Other Writings are found on the bedstands. After all, both books contain lovely ribbon bookmarkers!