Nathanael West (1903–1940)
From Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings
With the recent release of Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, the writings of Nathanael West are being rediscovered yet again. As Elizabeth Hardwick noted seven years ago: “Biographical and critical studies appear, important reviews, if not in a flood, an impressive stream of recognition. And yet, it is the practice of critics to lament the neglect of Nathanael West, despite the daunting accumulation.”
Although the “impressive stream of recognition” flows primarily from the strength of his novels (Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust), it was West’s work for the screen that paid the bills. By the end of 1934, the cumulative royalties for his first three books totaled $780; he made far more selling the movie rights for his largely unread fictional works, and he pulled in $7,500 for a film treatment (“Flight South”) that was never even produced. Yet he initially found his day job taxing; shortly after he started his screenwriting gig with Columbia Pictures in 1933, he wrote to a friend: “This stuff about easy work is all wrong. My hours are from ten in the morning to six at night with a full day on Saturday. They gave me a job to do five minutes after I sat down in my office—a scenario about a beauty parlor—and I am expected to turn out pages and pages a day.”
The same year he began his job at Columbia, he wrote “Business Deal” for the short-lived magazine Americana, which featured satirical works by the likes of James Thurber, E. E. Cummings, William Steig, and José Clemente Orozco. Included in a special Hollywood issue of writers “at present exiled in the Athens of the West,” the story shows the influence of S. J. Perelman’s “Miss Klingspiel, Take Dictation,” which had appeared in the magazine’s first issue. West’s spoof portrays a tenderfoot’s already-jaded weariness of the movie business—although his literary biographer Jay Martin remarks that its author “would go far deeper into the Hollywood dream than this.”
For an hour after his barber left him, Mr. Eugene Klingspiel, West Coast head of Gargantual Pictures, worked ceaselessly. First he read The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and The Film Daily. Then he measured out two spoonfuls of bicarbonate and lay down on the couch to make decisions. Before long Mr. Klingspiel had fallen into what he called a gentle reverie. He saw Gargantual Pictures swallowing its competitors like a boa-constrictor, engulfing whole amusement chains. In a delicious half-doze, he found himself wondering whether to absorb Balaban & Katz; but finding no use for Katz, he absorbed only Balaban, and turned next to Spyros Skouras and his seven brothers. Perhaps at the outset he ought to absorb only three of them. But which three? The three in the middle or two on one end and one on the other? Finally he arranged the eight Skourases into a squad of tin soldiers and executed five at random. . . . . . . . If you don't see the full story below, click the right button at the top of the reader to view the story in Google Docs or click here (PDF) to read it—free!