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West: slow burner young man on the make. As Woodward says: ‘West envisioned himself joining the great American migration started by such writers as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Wharton, and later followed by Hemingway, Pound, Stein, and Fitzgerald.’ He spent a couple of years in the City of Light, working on a fairly bad (yet blessedly short) novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), which Woodward describes nicely as ‘a quilted tale, part Quixotic journey and part epistolary tale’. Its writer-hero enters from below the digestive tract of the famous Trojan Horse, embarking on a bizarre journey. It’s odd, freaky, and mercilessly scatological – a surreal piece of fiction that found few readers.
Miss Lonelyhearts came soon thereafter, and it was brilliant if anguished. ‘It’s a short, violent dance of tortured characters,’ writes Woodward. ‘Each is an absurd living among the absurd.’ It’s a truly haunting book about an advice columnist, a man who speaks to those in despair. There is nothing normal about anyone in this novel, or in any novel by West; he was drawn to the bizarre qualities that ‘normal’ people exhibit without even trying. The desperate correspondents who write in to get advice suffer from hackneyed prose, and their emotional desperation is the quiet desperation of most people. As he writes in Miss Lonelyhearts, West was ‘in the business of dreams’. He might better have called it the business of nightmares.
The critics liked Miss Lonelyhearts a great deal, with a reviewer in the New York Times calling it ‘one of the hits of the year’. For all the praise it garnered, though, the novel didn’t sell. But West had a knack for business, and he optioned the work to Twentieth Century Pictures for $4,000 – a huge amount of money in the midst of the Depression. ‘Soon after Columbia Pictures offered West a contract to come to Hollywood and work on an original screenplay for the studio.’ His fortunes seem to shift, then shift again.
He got to know Scott Fitzgerald well in Hollywood. The author of The Great Gatsby was now a sad alcoholic who struggled to write film scripts for MetroGoldwyn-Mayer during the day while, at night, writing his Pat Hobby stories – some of the best fiction ever written about Hollywood. Both Fitzgerald and West shared ‘a desperate view of Hollywood’, as Woodward notes. For West, a Jewish boy from New York City, Hollywood was the place to go when there was nowhere else that would have him. After 1935, it was home: ‘Everything good and bad that happened to him from this point forth had something to do with Hollywood,’ Woodward suggests.
Alive Inside the Wreck seems to imitate, to a degree, the prose of West, with its short sentences and neon-lit realism. It ’s a quick read, and it compresses large insights into brief spaces. Some of the criticism on display is quite remarkable, as when Woodward describes The Day of the Locust as ‘a novel of displacement, of displaced people’. West wasn’t much interested in the ‘real’ history of westward expansion into California, or the pioneers who settled in Los Angeles. What called to him was the dream factory, the shimmering town of Hollywood that had no roots in reality. And the protagonist of the novel, Tod Hackett, seems very close to a self-portrait of West; Tod is described as ‘a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes’.
This is a remarkably good and succinct biography, well worth reading. It adds considerably to our understanding of West, taking on the fabled machinery of Hollywood itself, which often seems more a troubled state of mind that an actual place or industry. r f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 9