When I was a child I had action figures. Articulated plastic made to look like men from television and the movies. To make them fight I danced them around each other until I smashed them against each other. I smashed them again and again. None of the grace with which they fought off televised stormtroopers or Cobra commandoes or Lion-O’s in their fighting. Just smashing.
I do this still today. But in my head. And with Nathanael West smashing against F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There are books and there are books.
There are the books that you’ve been told are great and then you agree (you’re almost not allowed to disagree with their greatness) and then there are the great books you find on your own. The moldering paperback the used bookstore was using as a shim to keep the calendar showcase level. Until you came along and upset the display.
What I mean to say is that there is The Great Gatsby and then there is The Day of the Locust.
I love both of these books. One I was told to love and was loved by people I respected so I labored to discover it for myself; the other one I loved by the second paragraph.
Fitzgerald and West knew each other. Both worked in the movies. They met near the end of their lives. Fitzgerald probably guessed he was near the end of his (Zelda would die 8 years later, burning to death in a madhouse fire) and his salad days had clearly wilted by that time.
West’s death was more of a surprise. He’d just gotten married at 37 and was suddenly inexplicably happy.
Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on December 21st, 1940 at 44. West died a day later running a stop sign in El Centro, California at 37 (killing along with him his new wife, Eileen McKenna.) Both men at the time of their deaths had reason to believe they were literary failures.
When I first read The Day of the Locust in 1998, it felt vibrant and alive and even though it was written in the late thirties it felt razor sharp and it named the world around me. Our madness remains constant and enduring. Cynicism is the least opaque of our emotions, by which I mean Locust doesn’t have that distance I usually associate with 80-year-old fiction.
I loved the book immediately and I love it now. It’s brutal and there’s no still center, no safe place for the reader to stow his emotions, no safe remove from which to watch the story unfold. Our main character has a crush on his neighbor. He takes care of her dying father. He runs errands for her. He imagines hitting her over the head and raping her. Readers usually like Todd Hackett up to this point and now they’re complicit in the madness of the book.
It’s filled with unlikeable people and no soft edges.
It’s been a hard slog getting anyone to like this book as much as I do.
When my wife and I first started dating I gave her a copy (I always have several lying around the house just in case I can press it on anyone.) From her reaction to it, I’m amazed she still married me.
It’s no charmer of a book. But goddamn is it perfect.
Gatsby on the other hand I resisted. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but when that book’s cover is printed onto t-shirts, tote bags, and beach towels, I think it’s okay to start judging. It felt like safe cultural ground. It felt like group-think. It felt like people liked Gatsby in the mob-think way West dissects so perfectly in his own book.
Fuck Gatsby, I said. I’m punk-rock.
But I went to get my MFA and Robert Boswell kept talking about how great Gatsby was. I figured he couldn’t be totally wrong. So one summer while I was working construction, building a high-end denim store in the Buffalo, NY mall, I bought an iPod and I put Gatsby on it. It’s the recording that Tim Robbins did. He’s an actor and has the gifted actor’s ability to populate a room with his voice.
I was being paid under the table and we worked 14-16 hour days. So while I measured and cut and nailed the baseboard moulding of the dressing rooms, I listened to Gatsby. Over and over again. It’s only a little over six hours read aloud. I would listen to it twice a day. And then I’d start listening again the next day.
I love the book now. I brainwashed it into me. It’s interested in the delicate art of personal myth-making, and the buffer of a safe and somber Nick Carraway keeps everything at a step removed. Gatsby is very consciously constructed by this neighbor narrator, while West’s book is helter-skelter helter-skelter madness. West’s world unfolds and careens and doesn’t wait for you to catch up.
I am really in love with Gatsby and am always happy to talk about it with anyone. But I resent how it’s a safe book to bring up. West’s book, though, is something else, a dirtier secret. It’s not a book that I’ve ever had any luck getting anyone else to like. I keep trying. But people look at you funny when the book you claim to love the most ends in a riot that’s split between half the people stomping a suspected pedophile and the other half ecstatic because they just caught a glimpse of Gary Cooper at a movie premiere.
But I also believe West learned how to write a novel from studying Gatsby. His other work feels less masterful, less epic. Just less. I also think, when Nathanael West hung out with Fitzgerald, he felt like Jay Gatz to Fitzgerald’s Dan Cody. West changed his name from Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein and fashioned himself into the figure of a literary writer even though he had a string of failures to his name. He still believed he had a place at the Algonquin Round Table when he lived in New York and believed he earned the right to call Fitzgerald colleague in Hollywood.
In literary terms, West aspired to nouveau riche status.
Fitzgerald had massive success early on in his life and was related and named after the guy who wrote the national anthem. To West, Fitzgerald must have seemed like he had sprung from Paul Bunyan making love to Betsy Ross, something so ruggedly American that it seemed almost alien.
West reminds me of the poison-tipped edges of the world. And that people live under delusions that make us ridiculous.
Fitzgerald reminds me that the self is machined by the self. And if you’re going to have delusions make sure they’re delusions of grandeur.
West confirms my belief that the rest of the world is insane.
Fitzgerald reminds me that the self is a fractured fragile thing.
West burns the world and it’s glorious.
Fitzgerald romanticizes the self and it is beautiful.
Smash. Smash. Smash.