'The most diabolical humor ... Nat's best book is A Cool Million.' - John Fante
A Cool Million: or The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin is Nathanael West's third novel, published in 1934. It is a brutal satire of eternal optimism.
A Cool Million, as its subtitle suggests, presents "the dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin," piece by piece. As a satire of the Horatio Alger myth of success, the novel is evocative of Voltaire's Candide, which satirized the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Alexander Pope. Pitkin is a typical 'Schlemiel', stumbling from one situation to the next; he gets robbed, cheated, unjustly arrested, frequently beaten and exploited. In a parallel plot Betty Prail, Pitkin's love interest, is raped, abused, and sold into prostitution. Over the course of the novel Pitkin manages to lose an eye, his teeth, his thumb, his scalp and his leg, but nevertheless retains his optimism and gullibility to the inevitably bitter end.
Admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Fante, Bob Dylan, Dorothy Parker, Harold Bloom, and Dashiell Hammett, West's is a classic indictment of American life.
"Scenes of extraordinary power ... vividly drawn grotesques." - F. Scott Fitzgerald
"By applying the magpie aesthetics of Surrealism and T.S. Eliot to the 'American Grain, ' by delving into the popular culture and emerging not with surrender or refusal but a razor-cool critique, West became the great precursor to Heller, Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, George Saunders, and so much else." -Jonathan Lethem
"[West's] novels say more about the way we live now - and the things that brought us to our present pass - than any other work of fiction I can think of." - The New Yorker
"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." -Elizabeth Hardwick, The New York Review of Books
'In its awareness of political technique, its devastatingly true analysis of unrestricted Capitalist method, its foreshadowing of Americianism turned into a possible Fascism, A Cool Million is brilliantly successful.' - Alan Ross
About the author
Nathanael West published four novels during the thirty-six years of his life. The first, The Dream Life of Balso Snell
, an experimental work written in the 1920s, was well-received but sales were poor. The second, the brilliant Miss Lonelyhearts
, was published in 1933, a few months before his publisher went bankrupt. The third, A Cool Million
, vanished into the depths of the Depression. It was at this point that West went to Hollywood to earn his living as a scriptwriter. From his Hollywood experience came The Day of the Locust
. Publishing in 1939, the novel received very little recognition. The following year, on December 22nd, the day after his neighbour F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, Nathanael West and his wife were killed in a California highway accident. When West died, at the age of thirty-seven, his originality and brilliance were little known outside an intensely admiring circle of fellow writers: William Carlos Williams, Edmund Wilson, S. J. Perelman, and others. Not until West's four novels were reissued in the late 1950s was he acknowledged as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. His masterpieces blend manic farce and despairing compassion, and their vision of an America awash in its own mass-produced fantasies, read like a prophecy of much that was to come in American literature and life.