Almost Beautiful: A Life of Nathanael West Print E-mail

14_4cover(The Gettysburg Review Winter 2001)

Impossible, he would have said, but he is flying. Air above, air below, sudden yet with a strange everlastingness. A splay of arms and legs, and still he is shooting higher, as in a scene from a novel or a movie script he has written, a back-lot stunt off a trampoline: the soldier’s life, from small-town romance to war in the trenches, has been told in flashbacks, then BOOM! a bomb blows his body skyward. Any moment now the director will bullhorn, “Cut.”

And yet this flight also feels larger, a world and time apart, novelistic. He is making mental notes already, everything expanding, not contracting—in the air.


The writer making notes is Nathanael West. He is a screenwriter for the motion-picture industry and the author, most recently, of a terrifying novel about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust. The story is about a group of misfits in Tinsel Town, drawn powerfully together until their amalgam of ambitions turns ugly. West has written four novels, but only this one concerns the people who “had come to California to die.” Each novel was published to small acclaim—and very few sales—during the 1930s, his decade of emergence.

He has moved from New York to Hollywood several times, in search of writing work that pays him to keep writing. His string of unpopular books, his tiredness from the struggle to be paid for his labor, is not on his mind right now. Just the fascinating, familiar old sense of self-revulsion. Apparently, while aloft, he can think about work and at the same time recognize and store the details around him: the smell of a full ashtray emptying in the air; the sound of metal caroming away; the sound of a child screaming, Mommy; the adumbrated harlequin splayed out beneath him.

It is December 1940, and the Wests have collided with another car at a crossroads near El Centro, California, nine and one-half miles north of the Mexican border. The crash has flung open the doors of their station wagon; he is propelled west, she east. In the air, his mind has wandered to Eileen—her life in Greenwich Village and Hollywood; her three-year-old boy, Tommy, from a failed marriage; her white blouse unbuttoned twice below the neck; her multiple yeses to him. And yet even his love for her doesn’t keep. His training as a writer—scripts, stories, novels—for better, for worse elbows in again. The audience wants a sense of the ending. Even now. Will he live or die? Will we care either way? Which is it?


Fifteen minutes ago, a bit after 2:30, they started driving north from the grand, desert-white De Anza Hotel in Calexico, California, four and a half blocks from the Mexican border. Sky of blue. Air still moist from last night’s rain. Their Ford wagon is loaded with game from a weekend hunting quail and duck. Married just six months, his wife beside him, dog Julie in the rear. Puddles along the highway. Near-harvest rows of lettuce blurring into horizontal lines as they sweep by.

He didn’t stop.

They were distraught, talking incessantly, since they had just learned West’s dear friend F. Scott Fitzgerald had died. Dateline Hollywood. Sad news to report today, the voice of the flapper generation has been silenced. A heart attack, Saturday afternoon at home with Sheilah (no doubt) cradling him. And that, they have only now remembered, was previewed by a minor heart attack (could there be such a thing?) just three weeks before. The doctor confined him to bed for two weeks, and he was improving. Steadily.

West was driving. Not fast, not slow. Driving and talking. And remembering the elder Scott, the voice of “all the sad young men,” the author of The Great Gatsby, perhaps the only other writer in or out of the studios who really understood him.

The couple had not heard the initial radio announcement because they had left before sunup, taking coffee and supplies (guns cleaned, guns wrapped) in their paneled wagon to hunt in a swamp of cattails outside Mexicali. All morning—West’s keen eye, the guide’s moccasin-light step—they bagged the abundant, docile birds: there, fire, got ’em! But at lunch, the high-ceilinged De Anza dining room reverberated with the news. F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead. They were shocked, dumbfounded. How could it be when West and Eileen had just had them over for dinner and drinks the week before?

That night—with Fitzgerald and his paramour, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham; with their good friend Elliot Paul; with the Perelmans, Sidney and Laura, West’s sister—they played charades in the living room of the Wests’ new home in North Hollywood. “I’m thinking of a book that’s coming out early next year by someone we all know.” Hands up in the air, face of questioning futility: “What!” someone shouts. In the kitchen, cutting onions, tearful face turned away: “Cuts? Chops? Makes?” Third word, too hard, move on, fourth word, running in place: “Run.” What Makes Sammy Run. They all recognized the title of Budd Schulberg’s new novel, due out soon. Some had read parts in manuscript. Yes! Brilliant, slicing the onions, wiping the eyes! And then Scott said, “How good it feels to be out, to be with such friends.”

To think how well he had known Fitzgerald, to recall how Fitzgerald had (long ago) recommended West for a Guggenheim, based on his admiration of West’s second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. (Despite support from several editors and writers, his application was denied.) He remembered hearing what Scott wrote a friend after reading The Day of the Locust: “I was impressed by the pathological crowd at the premiere, the character and handling of the aspirant actress and the uncanny almost medieval feeling of some of his Hollywood background, set off by those vividly drawn grotesques.” West’s characters were called grotesques—the most vulgar, the most bedazzled of those who came to Los Angeles in pursuit of stardom. The publication and quality of The Day of the Locust had fed Fitzgerald’s imagination, given him the drive to finish a first draft (37,000 words) of The Last Tycoon, echoing some of West’s themes, but aiming his ire at the obsessions of Hollywood’s power brokers.

West paid the guide and the hotel bill, and he and Eileen packed and left. Midafternoon, time enough to return and be with Sheilah. What could they do? Anything. The blow of his dying, at first, made them busy, intent, but also unfocused, wayward. Running over his life like a selection of photographs at the center of a biography, and even that too ordered and predictable. It had been years since Scott had enjoyed a literary triumph. There was something mean-spirited, vindictive, about his dying this way, going out not on top but bouncing off another drink-heavy low. Reconciliation with Sheilah had been preceded by his violence, their separation, the debts that always scared him so—all things friends didn’t discuss, then regretted not discussing. And now Scott is dead—all that living-it-up with Zelda in the twenties didn’t kill him, but coming to California to be a screenwriter did.

West was drawn to Fitzgerald’s characterization of Hollywood—“all gold rushes are essentially negative.” He recognized a kindred spirit in the unself-conscious voice of a prophet.

He didn’t stop, the two cars collided.


In the air (impact—the cars bounce away from each other as if hatchet-split; but the road, the ditch, the telephone poles, the train tracks, stay stock-still in a photographic calm), the form he would give this episode continues to nag—no matter novel or script, some point for the reader’s benefit should, by now, be evident so he (the writer, I am the writer) can take a stab at developing it. Get the point going with a clever technique or two. Exploit its irony, delay it with suspense. Intensify the hell out of its turning true. Go backwards and forwards, denying time its authority. Then give the audience what you have made it want: let Icarus go where his waxen wings will take him.

In the air West’s hat stays on, a roughed-up leather hat, with broad black band and short, down-curved bill. West is wearing a favorite T-shirt, with long, thin, horizontal black stripes, sensible pants, sensible shoes. Beneath the hat, the large, pancake-flat ears; the bristly hair of his shoulders swarming onto his neck; the mustache’s dense growth, cropped back neatly the previous week; the now-thinning hair on his head, once parted left of center as style dictated in the twenties; the eyes that scrutinize with uncertainty, judgment, approbation. A boxer’s puffiness in his face from the commingled press of laughter, tenderness, cynicism, and the vicissitudes of defeat.

West is a writer. Born Nathaniel von Wallenstein Weinstein in 1903, the son of upper-middle-class Russian Jews who emigrated to New York City’s Lower East Side, he renamed himself West so the world would take him seriously—an original. He would be West, the motion, a verb, heading away from Europe, religion, tradition, heading literally where the trails and the trains and the highways were still taking the pioneers. Wallenstein Weinstein sounded like a man fleeing the pogroms! His dual nature, his alchemic sense of parody, his love of the surreal, the mysterious, the accidental—it’s not surprising that he can be in the action and be thinking about it, at the same time. He is one with his craft, like a single-celled body, re-creating himself on orders from the nucleus.

It is inevitable, this work in progress, this loft, this aerial.



West has been working in Hollywood steadily since 1936, at several studios (right now, RKO), employed as a scenarist or screenwriter. Thirty-seven since October, he loves to hunt as much as he loves to write. He tells friends it is easy to write a script but hell to write a novel. But writing novels is his passion, the worrying, the revising, the mocking, the confounding, the perfecting. (The Day of the Locust, a short novel, took more than three years to find its final shape.) Most important, the books he writes are his, while scripts belong to the studio. Thus, his scripts are (at least on the surface) nothing like his novels. And yet he has to write those, too. He can’t do anything but write. It is an illness, of a sort, and he is not alone. He knows several ex-Easterners who also finance their writing by working on pictures, among them friends from New York—Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Jr. His buddy, the novelist James T. Farrell, warned him in 1935 about returning to Hollywood: “I wouldn’t do it.” Farrell never caved, despite the offers. Dorothy Parker did, and enjoyed some success until the producers found out just how active in left-wing causes she was becoming. She once quipped that the only ism Hollywood understands is plagiarism. West went to California because he was exhausted with poverty, managing the Sutton Club Hotel in New York, where many writer friends lived cheaply, thanks to him. Once beyond Pasadena, though, the thought never left him that he was prostituting himself. Daniel Fuchs, another Lower East Sider who took the bait, was right when he said, “The first thing you have to learn out here is that you can’t make anything good . . . but if you play it right, you can be . . . making big money.”

When he first flew to California in 1933, West had an offer from Samuel Goldwyn no less to write an original screenplay. That didn’t pan out, but still he thought Goldwyn’s name would land him good assignments, for which Hollywood would want his novelistic stamp. Fat chance. Instead, he labored eight hours a day at MGM, six days a week: treatments, adaptations, dialogue, “polish jobs,” “Leslie Howard’s available to play the uncle so add in the uncle”; “write out all mention of Joan Crawford’s insufferable sister.” No exaggeration, directors hollering, “Get me rewrite!” Most scripts were never produced, but they were written. West ate well and (why fight the don?) accepted the formula one producer at Republic Pictures insisted upon: “Where’s the good guy? Where’s the good woman? Where are the white hats? And where are the black hats?” West called the plots he fashioned (a half-dozen never-made treatments in 1933 alone) Grade C Scripts.

A joke, that writers write movies. Writers have no say, a fact borne out by West’s dealings with Twentieth Century-Fox’s Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck paid $4000 for the rights to Miss Lonelyhearts, West’s 1933 novel about a Depression-era newspaperman who, on a whim and at the urging of his editor, becomes the paper’s advice columnist. He hopes to have some fun replying to the abject troubles of people who write in at the nadir of desperation. But—surprise!—they take the advice he doles out seriously, drowning him in their sorrows. The writer is no longer the perpetrator but, like a modern Christ, “the victim of the joke.”

Zanuck mutilated the book; he had it rewritten into a comedy-melodrama, Advice to the Lovelorn, with a silly mystery plot thrown in. Eviscerated of the novel’s social comment and its religious/satiric tone, the movie flopped. Fitzgerald was one of only a few readers who knew of the book’s originality, its strange and complicated appeal. West and Fitzgerald and other novelists banked the irony: they took the money the studios offered, watched their stories vitiated by hacks, and laughed—an insolent Hah!—at Hollywood’s having paid them good to cut out their hearts.

The lure and the letdown of a writer making a living out west. The studios were henhouses. The clack-clack-clacking of the typewriters in cells, in a row of cells where some 60 writers worked, monitored by “creative assistants”—You are working, aren’t you, Mr. West?—who directly reported to the studio boss, to Irving Thalberg, to Louis B. Mayer, to Mr. David O. Selznick . . . a joke. A movie’s reason for being is never its writing but always the makeover it receives as the star’s “vehicle.” I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.

After the commercial failure of his first three novels—by 1936, they had earned a total of $780—West returned to Hollywood. This time he told friends that, though he remained divided between novel-making and screenwriting, the latter would not distract him from the former. He realized that fantasy and its duplicity in the life of the artist would be the focus of his next work, and there was nowhere better than Hollywood to chew on it, firsthand. His first three novels would probably never sell, so he couldn’t do anything else but pay for the time necessary to write this one. By 1938 (weekends spent on his novel or thinking about his novel on a long hunting trip) he had parlayed several opportunities into a $350-a-week job at RKO.

There he helped write a dozen insipid scripts: Ticket to Paradise, Follow Your Heart, and the lamentable Ladies in Distress—which, so crowed a studio publicist, revolved around “the activities of a lady mayor of a small city who, on learning that her city is infested with gangsters and criminals . . . hires a gangster from a distant city to come and clean up her community. How her theory of thief-catch-thief works out makes what advance reports call ‘hilarious yet touching entertainment.’”

Some days, following a marathon group session writing dialogue (c’mon, gangsters would never use the word penalize), standing in front of his favorite restaurant, Musso and Frank’s, cleaning his teeth with a toothpick, adoring his West Coast self a little too much, the thought began to swell—the prostitute is to a woman’s love what the Hollywood screenplay is to a novelist’s art. To ride its crest he would think that novel writing resolves the difficulties of the artist’s life, and screenwriting makes it all a little less difficult. Besides, he wasn’t indifferent to the chink of the coins in his pocket. Indeed, to be always thinking about one’s soul meant you were probably as diseased as the publicists were, but in reverse. So some days he would put on his Brooks Brothers suit and slouch with a cigarette in hand outside Schwab’s Drugstore, the cool writer watching his material walk by.


The Ford wagon hums along; it sways, dipping in and out of the asphalt’s tire-furrowed grooves; the mingled smell of killed bird, duck down, and dog saliva drifts forward from waxed produce boxes in the rear. They pass a lot (Cars 4 Sale) of heaps and wrecks; amid the movement West senses, there is a reason to the movement of his life.

Eileen has turned off the radio. He is reminded of a particular line he had spread throughout The Day of the Locust, a line that did not necessarily refer to the artists, in number far fewer than the misfits, who got in and out of taxis on Sunset Boulevard: They are the people who came to California to die. He now knows he didn’t mean Scott. He meant the movie audiences emerging from and entering—at 12:00, at 2:00, at 4:00, at 6:00, at 8:00, at 10:00—the dark of the dark velvet theaters. Scott had come to Hollywood because of his own debts, chiefly the medical bills for his wife Zelda, whom, after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he committed to a sanatorium. He didn’t mean Scott, not with his talent—he was so far beyond those screenwriters who the studios insisted should rewrite his treatments. Christ, what was he, 44?

Eileen is just as upset about the coming aftermath as he is—the memorial, the funeral, the reception—Scott’s estate, his letters, his bills—the government, the taxes. Oh, the difficulty of Zelda’s hearing the news, worse that she might finally know about Sheilah. Scottie, the daughter, will be devastated. She idolized him. Most of us did. The Imperial Valley, across which they are headed, is treeless, a sinking, summer-broiling desert loosely unified by sky and scrub and irrigation ditches, where the soft distances of the mountains east, the mountains west, have an angry grandeur that says this place was here long before you and your cars and trains intruded.

Don’t we owe Scott’s life some reason other than to have come to California to die?

West’s title, The Day of the Locust, alludes to the destruction wrought by the locust plague in the Bible, from which lamentation and repentance were born. But West’s plague spells out no consequence other than that the end has only just begun. Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon enacts its own plague, a violent and catastrophic end of a family, based on the rapacious power that producers wield in the studio system. Scott was thrilled to have finished his draft, announcing at the Wests’ party that he had done so. His finest book to date.

What sort of reason can we attach: fate? karma? punishment?

Now what would become of Tycoon? A man’s work is the man. Would it be published in fragmentary form? An unfinished masterpiece? Someone surely will buy the book, then assign the hack factory to write a treatment, with say Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, having her wed the cantankerous studio boss (write out all of that familial conflict) and become the wacky, behind-the-scenes “little lady” in charge.

Cutting between the Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Jean Harlow images that fill his mind (images replacing thought; casting replacing originality)—a reason occurs to him: You come west to marry money and art but only on your employer’s terms, fouling the art with romance, poisoning the purpose with stars. What happens to the marriage? He wants to tell Eileen this but—

He didn’t stop, the cars collided, the impact propelled them out and into the air . . .


December 1940, three days until Christmas, and beneath them, what is carrying them home, the pavement, he is, she is, literally, heading for—the gravel-pocked, oily surface; the painted-on white dashes that above forty-five miles per hour join as one; the rough edge where the asphalt succumbs to the dirt shoulder. There is too much waiting for him, too much shifting off and on in his mind. And there is Eileen, listening to him as much as she talks on herself, and he listens to her, on and off and on for these flying-by minutes: Scott’s death and how that gets mixed up with their life in the picture business—is it worth it?—how that gets mixed up with West’s next novel, which Bennett Cerf has advanced him money for already, $250, though he asked for $1000—a sleight that keeps him working, slaving, as she has got to keep working—everything costs money—and what else could he do after today anyway, after what’s happened?

In the air: during the long arc of his crash-catapulted body up and onto the air where the invisible (he is finding) has planes of repose, there is time, there is time to plan the next move, even now. He makes a note of this. The conscious vitality of the air: the lift, the loft, the spread-eagling, the moment the body is poised in near-full then full trajectory, its cannon-shot absurdity, its applause-activating deed.

And Eileen believes (doesn’t voice it, rather senses it) that this is a turning point for him, the rushing back home, rushing him, for it is what he wants, it makes him happy to dream, as she does, the cool air feeling good, cleansing, on her arm, her wiry, light-brown hair feeling good, the breeze filtering through it; she is aware of her husband’s rising in importance now—and not because they have known Scott Fitzgerald alive, and now Scott Fitzgerald dead. Not the fact of Scott’s death is important, but that life, their lives, go on in its wake.



Eileen McKenney and Nathanael West (on the right) came to California not to die but to meet. It was inevitable, they later believed, for each had read about and admired the other before they were introduced. West knew of Eileen from her sister Ruth McKenney’s sketches in The New Yorker, collected in the best-seller My Sister Eileen. Ruth’s tales of the pair’s growing up in Ohio and storming the Big Apple showcased Ruth as the artful conniver and Eileen as the pretty catch (a never-caught catch) in episodes of well-upholstered tact. At times the stories were too tactful, too cute. Eileen was her sister’s leading lady, and Ruth was coy and tart, ravishing and carefree. Ruth dared not put in (who would read it?) the real Eileen who, in life, was troubled and lonely, unhappily married but not unafraid. Only novels contained unhappily married women! West fell for this wrought Eileen as much as he did for the actual young woman. And Eileen made it easy for West to love her: she might act out the role, especially at the glitzy Hollywood party, of Ruth’s charm-ridden sister. All the better to woo them and him—and not to show herself.

Before they were introduced, Eileen knew of West, having read Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. As her sister recalled, she possessed “an image of [him] as America’s greatest writer.” Ruth believed Eileen had “determined to marry him before she met him.” The newlyweds laughed about this future that had grown up behind them. It was reminiscent of those publicist-driven liaisons, harmless dates between an actor and actress shown in the pages of Photoplay, that fed flames of romance on and off the silver screen. But West never saw his love life as a career decision. That was grotesque. And he remained wary of marriage. One friend recalled that West “knew one of the most important things of his life was happening to him” when he met Eileen, “yet one part of his mind was sitting somewhere up high . . . scouting the process.”

But they did marry. And she—who was glad to be rid of her first husband and her sister’s casting pen—was a find. West, the hunter, loved her for never begrudging him his weekend shoots; often she would accompany him and “developed,” he said, “into quite a shot.” Eileen, 27, a stutterer at times, self-effacing, diffident around strangers, was a spirited intimate. A loyal Communist, she abhorred meetings but still persuaded West to study Marxism once a week with a small group in Los Angeles. She, too, knew (and regretted her involvement in) the movie business, having been a researcher at Disney Studios. His lover, his wife, a mother of a three-year-old boy, and soon to be (they had decided in breathless fests of kissing) the mother of their children. Together they rented a home, 12706 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood, and it was, as always, a festive mess when they left late Friday. Christmas presents for friends were on the table, a few already wrapped. A set of Spode china sat uncrated in the dining room. Out the windows, two acres of walnut and pear trees. They cherished the home; it spoke of them, loudly—its new furniture, two telephones, three radios, books and scripts everywhere, and Rose, a woman who stayed with Tommy when they were gone.

Before West met Eileen, he described in The Day of the Locust a nighttime view of the Hollywood Hills, below which he used to live in a series of cramped apartment houses: “The edges of the trees burned with a pale violet light and their centers gradually turned from deep purple to black. The same violet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly, humpbacked hills and they were almost beautiful.” How long those sentences, mixed with venom and poetry, took to perfect, how fervid a mood they set in the novel’s opening chapter. It was the landscape’s cinematic allure leavened with a surreal danger that he nabbed.

But his vision of the world was changing, and Eileen was the obvious, mysterious agent of that change. It wasn’t any topic in particular they talked of that satisfied him so deeply; it was that when he talked with her about anything, he talked with her, she bent closer to him, regarded him with devotion, with seriousness, made him feel his ideas were inspiring in the moment of their utterance; the more he talked, the more intently she listened, the more intent her own responses were, the more she was coming alive, sharing his aliveness, and the less important that pencil line of grey-topped road before them and their station wagon appeared to be, puddles in tire ruts whizzing by.


West knew about the masses, was sympathetic to their lives, but he could not write to please them; he refused to mirror how they would like to be seen. West mirrors his imagination and is lousy at representing the workers, the people, the masses. The masses (a phrase West must have heard often at meetings he routinely attended in Hollywood, some sponsored by his organization, the Screen Writers Guild)—the masses had grown central to society’s structure since the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism placed the good of profit over the needs of people. Karl Marx teaches that industrial labor breeds alienation and when people become alienated they become angry at their bosses in field and factory. The masses were also central to a new generation of writers who seem to have agreed, tacitly at least, to portray with compassion the “mass man,” the individual whose strength comes from being part of the group.

In 1939 when The Day of the Locust appeared, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a book that ennobles the masses if ever there was one, was also published. It was bought by tens of thousands of Americans. It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie by John Ford in 1940. Ford won an Oscar for best director. In the summer of 1939, West wrote to Malcolm Cowley, “Take the ‘mother’ in Steinbeck’s swell novel—I want to believe in her and yet inside myself I honestly can’t.” West blamed his “middle-class upbringing” for his inability to rally “good” in his characters. He identified the “problem” in his novels: “There is nothing to root for in my books and what is even worse, no rooters.” It was true: at least in Fitzgerald’s novels there was something positive to come of the conflict, someone wiser for having suffered. Perhaps that is why even Scott’s novels made money at first.

Alas, West’s take on the masses was nothing like Steinbeck’s. In The Day of the Locust he fits his group of lost souls with wishes far beyond their grasps. Their longing arises not from any misery that wishing brings on but from the boredom of waiting. To amuse themselves, they adjust their masks tighter, polish their illusions brighter. He describes them as “cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious, the wave, airplane, funeral and preview watchers—all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.” How frontier American they were, West thought. A westerly mass movement, not toward political freedom but toward reckless individualism. And—the shame of it—West’s masses weren’t likeable. They didn’t see their “finer natures” in his work and, thus, didn’t read him. If the audience has a say (which, the pictures have convinced us, it does), he was dead wrong. It is much more American to want—than to have—the working-class humanity that Steinbeck expressed. And to prove it, in 1939 The Grapes of Wrath sold 430,000 copies, The Day of the Locust, 1464.

But why was the difference so lopsided? Why to the massive degree that they accepted Steinbeck did they reject West? Isn’t the point of the artist’s life to upset, to unseat the status quo? Writers coast-to-coast loved West’s fiction. They admired his ability to combine reality and nightmare into a new tableau: no one wrote prose with such compression, chose language with such precision, characterized people with such edges. His novels satirized and cautioned against the wishes of any group or mass that wanted what it could not have. The dispossessed surely wanted justice and humane treatment from their society. But West believed they yearned for something far simpler and far more selfish—the promise that in America anything can come true.


The Pontiac sedan was driven by Joseph Dowless. His daughter Ann sat between him and wife Christine. This family of produce pickers or “fruit tramps,” as they were known, was returning from Yuma, Arizona, to their home in El Centro after a stint picking lettuce. They were heading west at 45 miles per hour on U. S. Highway 80, a four-lane road. Those on Highway 80 had the right-of-way. West’s Ford wagon was going north on California Highway 111 when West ran the boulevard stop sign and hit Dowless’s sedan. The collision sent West out the driver’s door and Eileen out the passenger’s door, while the Pontiac hurtled, overturning, into a ditch.

West missed the stop because he was pre-occupied with talking. It was his habit not to watch the long, straight valley roads of California he was driving until his rider called his attention back to the highway. West spoke with animation as he drove, often (so said a friend) “looking over at you as he talked . . . just as if he were sitting in a bar having a conversation.” For West, interested in going over whatever was on his mind, driving was secondary. When Eileen first rode with him, she insisted driving herself home. She told a friend he was a “murderous driver.”

And yet she married him, logged great distances with him behind the wheel, and this day those monotonous yet freeing 9 miles from the De Anza Hotel to the crossroads east of El Centro begged both to neglect the flying-flat road, the flying-by fields, the flying-absence of town as they grieved the loss of their friend: Any writer today would be hard-pressed to find a better man to emulate than Fitzgerald. Scott once told a mutual friend that he and West were much alike, for they were moralists, wanting “to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.” This assertion affirmed for West his own sensibility; it spoke to Eileen of a man she believed was (was still to be) America’s greatest writer. In The Great Gatsby and in The Day of the Locust, Fitzgerald and West had, using different places and people, drawn arguably the most negative visions of America to date. Each felt his vision was crucial to saving the country from itself! West did not realize how close he was to Scott until Scott was dead. A trite notion, a popular song, perhaps. But it was true.


Right feet of male drivers slam on rubber pedals, hearts pumping brake-blood to brain-core drum-pads against wheels—car tires answering pushing back on riders—both cars receiving rear axles rising—adults (child, dog) strewn about cab or thrown out entirely. Behind West, Julie slides into panic, paws like sticks trying to stop the force of the seat-back barreling at her.

Meanwhile, a voice (disembodied) is saying, I’m thinking of a play. Hands up in the air, face of questioning futility, What; searching the sweater’s sleeves for a tag, finding it, looking aghast, Price; hands up again but in supplication to the Almighty, Our Father? Who Art? In Heaven? Glory. What Price Glory? Gods, in whom he has never believed—implore them?—will not take Eileen, young, beautifully plain, a perfect partner, an innocent in all this. Aren’t Gods for imploring? Implore

—but it is only an idea, not the gravel ripping his palms, not the dust and dirt striping his lip, and yet there is time to think what he is thinking as well as time for the jolt to his head (the wow-I-see-it of lightning, full of lightning’s reflection), and his head is being taken off but is still attached or else he wouldn’t be able to implore himself to implore the Gods—

and yet it is all a vanity, a striving after the wind, a vanity of consciousness, somewhere up high designed to mislead us.

(Gods implored is man denied.)

His thoughts blot out the simple fact that the gravelly, silicic pavement wants him in the worst way. Hands, arms, and legs splayed, wish they could curl inward and protect from the impending thud. Muscles shorten to salvation; mind wriggles against the tomb-sound, the great stone lid sliding (crrrfffttt) into place. What silences his brain finally is the double insult, of contusions when his head hits, bounces on the road, his hands mangled in the process of trying to stop it, and the loss of blood to the brain that will concomitantly drain mind and memory away. A bit of detached blood clot or air bubble heads up the arterial flow, flotsam at first—then gathering matter and weight and speed—becoming an embolus. The embolus eventually is caught in the artery’s narrowest passage and can go no farther. Wedged in, it blocks the flow of blood through the artery, until—as it is pressed more tightly into the wedge—neither oxygen (life) nor blood (life’s gangway) reaches the brain’s tissue. The tissue becomes necrotic. Tissue dies, brain dies, body dies. But it takes the clot time to seal itself. The brain—flexing its synaptic power, especially in this novelist, this hack (which is it?)—does not give in easily. No matter how irreversible the smack-down, cells will metabolize, enzymes will secrete a few minutes more.

News: December 22, 1940, Eileen is flung out the passenger’s side of the paneled Ford wagon and hits the chrome grill of the Pontiac sedan with such force that time, under the smashed glass of her watch, stops at 2:55 p.m.

Opinion: Do not mistake trauma for finality.


The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, is, like Moby Dick, among the most prophetic novels in American literature. It tours, on-site as it were, Hollywood’s commerce of illusion in the thirties and the people who arrived daily, enlisting in the fantasy. The novel paints a group portrait of this “cream” of “America’s madmen,” West’s grotesques. One is Tod Hackett, a young set-and-costume designer and the novel’s antihero. Recruited by “a talent scout for National Films,” Tod is seized, once he takes in Hollywood’s superficial hangers-on, by a desire to paint them in a Goyaesque work he calls “The Burning of Los Angeles.” He begins by studying the “screwballs and screwboxes” he sees everyday, walking down Vine Street. He notices that the “fat lady in the yachting cap was going shopping, not boating; the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning, not from a mountain, but an insurance office; and the girl in slacks and sneaks with a bandanna around her head had just left a switchboard, not a tennis court. . . . [T]hey loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time,” early in the novel, “Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.”

His education has taught him that “it is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance,” but he finds those in Hollywood who desire beauty and romance “tasteless, even horrible. . . . Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” As he collects images, he comes to value the canvas, strangely, not for “its merit as painting,” but because he believes it foretells the future. No matter how much he thinks he is overreacting, “he refused to give up the role of Jeremiah,” the Biblical prophet. There is a violence at the core of Hollywood that is only getting worse, and he is “amused by the strong feeling of satisfaction this dire conclusion gave him.”

Tod Hackett lives in a “nondescript affair called the San Bernardino Arms,” where he is drawn into the lives of several characters who are both seduced by and traffic in illusion. There is Abe, a sometime movie extra, a bookie, a spiteful, brawling dwarf; Claude, a “successful screenwriter” and “dried-up little man,” whose series of cloying romantic scripts has given him the money to live in a faux Southern mansion, where he keeps a life-size rubber horse in the bottom of his swimming pool; Faye, Tod’s love interest, a talentless empty-headed young actress who toys with him and refuses his sexual advances, despite working in a nearby brothel; Harry, her lunatic vaudevillian father, who converts his spare moments into clownish skits, even acting out (convincingly) a heart attack, which actually turns fatal; and Homer Simpson, the man on whose shoulders Tod’s prophecy of violence falls. Homer is a 40-year-old bookkeeper who comes from Iowa with ample life savings and dreams of lessening his loneliness in Hollywood, but he is psychologically so demeaned by Faye that he strikes back and, at a movie premiere, attacks a nose-thumbing child actor in a Buster Brown suit. In a final mob scene, where Tod tries to save Homer, Homer kills the child actor and initiates a riot: he is floated above a revengeful mob that, in turn, tears him to pieces. Homer Simpson had come to California to die.


West is lying with the pavement, like a dancer, cheek to cheek. He is near the point where the asphalt tapers onto and into the dirt shoulder. His hat has not stayed on. Suddenly he feels his head being lifted—to fly again? No, Eileen’s arms are encircling him. The miracle, stirred. She is holding him up and he must, he must, push his eyes open—push—so he can see her. He has the strength to behold the familiar dimples either side of her smile, to lay his head on the downy lift and fall of her breathing. Eileen, darling, you are here, I am not alone—and then she is gone. Regret sets in. Had he not pledged to take care of her, no matter what fouled the weather, out loud, in front of friends at their wedding? He can’t remember. No harm will come to you. Did those words fit a character’s mouth or his own? He can’t remember. Eileen is hovering so close to him that it is impossible that he has hurt her. But then it was, as he would have said, impossible to fly. She is his skin, his heart, playing over/with his lips. She/he; Aries/Libra; lover/hunter. He is awakening; he must find her. No, God, she is here beside me. He is awakening to an awakening, sleep layered like sediments. Does she know what happened? She knows, she will come. And: He is not a character in a novel by Nathanael West.


At the movie premiere, Tod watches as “new groups, whole families,” kept arriving. “He could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.”

Tod generalizes further while the mob grows more bitter. “Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”

After the mob kills Homer, the people reach fever pitch again: Tod imagines himself painting “The Burning of Los Angeles” at the same time he is pulled into the madding crowd. He “worked at the flames in an upper corner of the canvas, modeling the tongues of fire so that they licked even more avidly at a corinthian column that held up the palmleaf roof of a nutburger stand.

“He had finished one flame and was starting on another when he was brought back by someone shouting in his ear. He opened his eyes and saw a policeman trying to reach him from behind the rail to which he was clinging. . . . Tod was afraid to let go until another man came to aid the policeman and caught him by the back of his jacket. He let go of the rail and they hauled him up and over it.”

Painting, Tod has purpose, a point, sanity; being dragged through the rioters at the movie premiere, he loses purpose, his point, his sanity. And though he seems saved by the police, his prophecy has been fulfilled: as have the lives of the grotesques, his life has merged with his vision as an artist. There is no escape: Hollywood joins art to life, and the propagation ends in violence.


In West’s blood the old afflux of rancor against movie bosses and idiot masses has hit the embolus wall and is retreating, quickly, back down the arterial passage to the spleen, where it pools, taking with it the everything that has always existed to become an everything that has never existed—except this panic to touch Eileen. The air that held him aloft now chills his skin, and Eileen who is coming, who is forgiving, who will gather me remains. He had written his editor Bennett Cerf that for his next novel, his fifth, he had the “entire story clearly” in his mind. It’s “extremely simple and full of the milk of human kindness, and I am not joking, I really mean it.” He would quit screenwriting in January and stop ministering to the vain, lost soul of America. He wants to show Cerf he can become a less heavy author. (A sales increase may result.) He has sentenced himself to hard work, from which this new river of kindness will flow. He will move on from the fake and pathetic and hopeless (though his screenwriter character may put up his dukes) because now he has seen with Eileen’s eyes the mere voyeurism of those things that once so troubled him. They are erasable. So fully as if they too never existed.


After the movie industry warehoused its “dream-dump” on lots where orange groves once stood, sent its casting calls for understudies and pinups, stuntmen and Valentinos, became by 1927 the tenth largest industry in the country, drew one of six Americans into a movie theater by the mid-thirties every day, those who came to get off in front of the camera got off the bus with parts down pat. Ingénues, gangsters, faith healers, cowboys, confidence men, matinee-idol types, pretty girl-next-door types, tap-dancing–noxiously-happy–Shirley Temple types. Real or feigned didn’t matter. West believed they had come to Hollywood willing and unwitting, as soldiers festered onto Civil War battlefields, whose mass wounding (death would come later from infection) great generals plotted by dusky camp lanterns the night before. That is what he had presented in The Day of the Locust: Given the forces assembled, here is the map of doom.

No one is elected to the post of soothsayer. One is called. One who changes his name from Weinstein to West.


At the crossroads there is a mass reluctance to stop, most are reluctant to stop, some slow behind the reluctant, cars honk or glide by on the shoulder then see—What could we do?—until there’s no room for slowing. It stops everyone, and the gathering begins with a few who get out, pace, peer, stifle cries, his wife? his daughter? Curious faces gawk from windows; parents say Look, parents say Don’t look; several noses think they smell death. One or two teenage boys wander up close and behold the brunt in the cars: far apart, one in the ditch, the other on the road, one having bounced and rolled away with the impact, the other having taken the impact within. The boys expect the scene to crawl with patrol cars and off-duty nurses and make way, I’m a doctor, as though there should be more than gawking, as though life should be imitating the movies. In a way it is, in a way it should be.

In the ditch the Pontiac is demolished, a crumpled mass like wadded paper. On the pavement rest the still-inflated back tires of the wagon, the front tires on the dirt shoulder, skid-ripped, blown. The Ford’s hood is wrenched and pointing up; the doors stick out like elephant ears. Since this crossroads is notorious for collisions, a watchful neighbor has already called the Imperial County Hospital, a “migrant” hospital for guest Mexican workers, providing one of only two ambulances in the county, a county of 4200 square miles. The ambulances have more work than they can handle on Sundays, especially this Sunday so near Christmas.

Joseph Dowless had watched the endless reel of telephone poles—like a vanishing point—on either side of U. S. Highway 80, flat and straight and mesmerizing as he drove. But still he slowed a bit at the intersection, one he knew well. That intersection with Highway 111 was typically busy, taking drivers from north, east, and south to El Centro, then to Highway 86, on to Indio, Palm Springs, and Los Angeles. He saw the Ford wagon coming from the left and believed the other driver would stop. Dowless was more worried, however, about cars coming from the north and passing over the railroad track crossing that parallels Highway 80. “I always figured,” the newspaper quoted him, “there was more danger [from cars coming from the right] than [from] the ones coming from the left; therefore, I didn’t look back to the left in time to see this fellow until it was too late to do anything about it. The wife says, ‘He didn’t stop,’ and as she says ‘Stop’ the two cars collided.”

Ann and Christine and Joseph Dowless did not fly from their car; they flopped against one another within, and against the steering column and the stick shift and the dashboard, careening into the grass and cinder-collecting ditch. He suffered a severed artery in his arm; his wife, a broken leg and pelvis; his daughter was “crying terribly,” said the paper. The incontestable wailing of a two-year-old child—to have this life given, then to have it taken away?

In the back of the wagon, Julie, West’s liver-colored pointer, was “cut with glass” and ran “around attempting to get into the station wagon,” the paper continued. She nosed her owners’ bodies, tried to stir them with licks and pules. Disoriented, she kept snoop-sniffing the ground around her two masters for clues. When a siren neared, she bolted into the ditch and up the other side, leapt over the railroad tracks, and ran into the fields.


At 3:20, a policeman pulls up and surveys the scene. By now, passersby have calmed the child. Her parents are conscious, their bleeding stopped, blankets mitigating shock. A doctor drives up, decides there is nothing he can do for the Wests, and waits for the ambulance to arrive. It is useless to examine them. They have lost much blood—obvious, the maroon blotches on the pavement, the couples’ seeming lifelessness. To give them oxygen or blood or intravenous fluids—yes but only a fully-equipped hospital could do that. So the doctor chats with the policeman (the waste of life the automobile had brung) and waits for the flashing lights.

From a car radio “Love, Oh, Love, Oh, Careless Love” sings the ex-con Leadbelly. West seems cushioned by the pavement, face mangled, hands mangled, the emboli in his arteries effectively cutting off the blood to his brain, the flesh of his folly warm now under a full sun. His hat beside him, upside down, an empty bucket. And Eileen, not far away, her watch with cracked face and stopped time glimmering over her bruised wrist. The two top buttons of her white shirt are still unbuttoned.

Wife and husband lie on the ground, on opposite sides of the Ford, but they connect to one another in that hopeful way we want the downed to rise again, to love again, to live for the good of the child waiting with Teddy Bear at home, of friends in Hollywood, of parents and families back east. It is horrible to watch life ebbing away at this length, and yet their silence and stillness on the pavement say we need not worry. Life ebbs away as much as life initiates remembrance of its ebbing away, at radically variable paces. The division has been set, the principals have been chosen, the collision has been engaged, an end is near, and our memory is (already) investing the scene with another life and meaning than what it possesses right now, whose possession (in turn) of what exactly it is possessing no one knows.

A siren at last parts the onlookers. Why has it taken so long? Because in the inflation of myth, these things take time. West is lifted onto a gurney, slid into the ambulance’s rear, sidled over to make room for the gurney with Eileen. The ambulance’s motor never stops running.

In The Day of the Locust, Tod is lucky: the authorities intervene and, with haste, spirit him away, perhaps to save him, perhaps to save others from his vision. But Tod has crossed over. What he had imagined for his painting has come true: the locusts have had their day. Experiencing Hollywood’s madness as reality, he is about to know there will never (for him) be a difference between the two. And it is this thought, not the riot per se, that has driven him berserk. The novel ends with Tod “carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew then it was the siren. For some reason this made him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loud as he could.”


They had come to California . . . Was it no different for F. Scott Fitzgerald, no different for Nathanael West, no different for Eileen McKenney? Almost that tidily balanced. But differences always manifest. West was not nationally known, not like Scott, whose death was on the radio. West had never even had a halfway decent seller. So. Come to California, where anything, even this development, just might turn his career around. Where his prophecies would be taken seriously. Where there is no other explanation, where the ambulance took its time, where the ambulance did not arrive too late for Tod. Where we come to die. The hacked-up, hacked-over script was at last going into production: heedless driving; unlikely crash; blown-flown from the car; expiration—on the pavement (close) in the ambulance (closer) at the hospital. No, the director is yelling, I don’t want any more rewrites.

He is, simultaneously, in and above the action, like a prophet and like one for whom the end is prophesied. The prophecy. Isn’t that the point? Eileen and Scott came to California, as well as West, to die. That is the point.

But the onlookers, those who have taken the time to view. To wonder. To consider. They are his judge and jury, waiting for an ambulance that is and is not coming. It will get here too late, it will get here at the last possible minute, it will get here not at all. Thinking, anything can come true.

Is it too much to suggest that the map of doom points to this?

The small massing crowd staring at the wreck probably has not read Nathanael West, but they are looking at him and his wife in the rough hammer-down of their landing as though they have. As though justice has entered the fix. He didn’t stop, he ran the boulevard stop. From Hollywood, wasn’t he? Hooked up with the pictures. No wonder his life was out of whack; he had some big movie deal to get back to, he didn’t stop, the cars collided, he didn’t notice the other car, and that’s what skidded him over there and flung her smack, right there. A man like that who puts his life and his wife’s life in danger must have been full of himself and the fantasy that goes on, there is some lesson in having come all this way to El Centro, to meet his maker, and hers, too.


West met Eileen McKenney at a dinner party in October 1939, arranged by friends. To West she was beautifully plain, a talkative heroine of a best-seller, yet also her shy self. He asked her out, and on their first date she wore blue satin and they dined in, at her place, so he could meet her son, Tommy. They were perfect, this mother-and-son pair, late of Greenwich Village, a bad marriage, her sister’s best-seller. Putting the boy to bed, reading him a story, was a joy West had never known. Perfect in that way one can’t imagine perfection, rather it just presents itself when one is least looking for it. After a few dates West knew he had found it, still wary of plunging in, questioning (his nature) why it had been given to him (from somewhere up high) and what was attached to it. But he asked her to marry him anyway and she said yes, yes, yes—in breathless fests of kissing. They married the following April and that summer honeymooned on the McKenzie River in Oregon, fishing-and-hunting buddies for six weeks.

She listened to his dreams about a career as a novelist. She broke through his reserve, his fear of intimacy. He played Miss Lonelyhearts to her darker, self-defeating self, and together—a miracle that it happens at all, though it is rather commonplace in those who have never lost hope that it will—they felt invincibly right for each other. His life to come with Eileen was what mattered to him, and he could see the pinnacle of his wish.

A future, now.

So when he awakened with her arms around him, it was just as they had gone to sleep, the two moments, night and morning, as one.

Was that it?

That was it. The promise, everlasting, beginning and always arriving.

The two of them, side by side, in the rushing ambulance. Light, through barely parted curtains, like the first light of the movie flickering on in the velvet dark theater, flickering to life, from the darkness of expectation, what will it be, how will it begin, the recognizable passage at last from darkness to flickering.


He is a traffic statistic, a movie treatment, a novelist, a screenwriter, husband and hunter, the idea of an individual and a mass, the man and the man’s role. And he is a moment in May 1936, at Republic Pictures, sprawling on the leather couch in his producer’s office (it is lunchtime), lacing his fingers behind his head, a self-satisfied smirk because dreaming is the easy part, it just comes to him, the plot of a novel, or was it a movie, that would put a young artist, not against his will, in a place where he sees unconscionable things but also keeps his separateness from those things (he will figure that out later), those trappings of desire that must be created and sold, little by little, to another willing group of people, who become, little by little, no different from their desires, which is, after all, what they want, and he thinks that makes a good wrinkle for a movie, no, now it is a novel, or maybe it is the expanse of a life, the crisis of the artist in his life and of his time, for which he didn’t stop because he couldn’t stop, he could never STOP, he had no choice but to explode the world of fakery and desire as well as to understand his own strange fascination with it, the thought continuing like a phone ringing through the loft in the air, the strike on the head (Eileen? where is she?) the lingering, the punishing wait, punishing him until he would say he would rather not live in a world whose end he can predict so easily, knowing at last what has killed Scott, what may, too, take Eileen (Where is she? Where is she?) the first light flickering on through the barely parted curtains, the tires rumbling on the road . . . .