Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, October 17, 2014

Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of Nathanael West by Joe Woodward (2011)

Nathanael West (1903 to 1940) was a sublime chronicler of the dark side of the American Dream.  Joe Woodward in his brilliant, very well written and documented biography of West, Alive Inside the Wreck -  A Biography of Nathanael West, helps us understand how he came to write his novels.   The general literary consensus on West is that Miss Lonelyhearts is for sure a master work and probably The Day of the Locust is also.  Little interest is shown in his two shorter,  very strange novels, The Dream Life of Balso Snell and A Cool Million.  All I can say is read all these novels, total page length is under six hundred pages.  Then when you have read and been stunned by these books (if you are not amazed by them, and wonder if it you or West that is at fault here, it is you) then you are ready to read Joe Woodward's   biography of West.  You can see Woodward likes West a lot personally but he does not shield us from his darker side.  He loves West's books.  I hope to reread them all in 2015 and I think after reading Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of West I will be able to see a bit deeper into West's oeuvre and enjoy it more.  West's work is dark, randomly violent and focuses on the Preterite of America but it is also very funny at times and a delight to read.  

I do not feel inclined  to repeat the outlines of West's life but want to talk a bit about some of the factors that make me highly recommend Woodward's biography to not just the obvious audience of West lovers but anyone interested in American culture in the 1930s, a time of terrible ecomonic hardship lasting for the decade, known as the Great Depression.  All of his books were wriiten in the 1930s.

Harold Bloom, for whom I have great respect, has said that Miss Lonelyhearts is about being Jewish in America.  (He also said that along with I Lay Dying and the Byron the Bulb Segment in   Gravity's Rainbow, Miss Lonelyhearts were the only three examples of the sublime in American literature.) West (born as Nathanael Weinstein in New York City, his mother was a German Jew and his father Russian, West legally changed his name, Woodward tells us, to make himself  seem more main stream American for his screen writing career) grew up in relative affluence.  His father was successful in the building  and hotel businesses in New York City.  As I read Woodward's  very well done material on the background of West's parents I thought I saw for sure the ghost of the  darkly comic visions of powerful Yiddish writers like Lamed Shapiro.   There are deeply buried memories of Eastern European pogroms in West and Woodward helped me see this.  West's spoke no Yiddish but a few slang words and thought of himself as an American.  He had a comfortable upbringing and worked for a while in a family owned hotel.  I can see him observing with a comic eye the comings and goings of the guests.  In a very entertaining and informative section Woodward lays out for us West's academic career.  West was no great shakes as a student but he was very well read in European classics, especially Russian and French.  After some shady episodes he did graduate from Brown but he was more interested in partying than excelling.  In this you can see West has no great respect for authority figures and little impulse to please.

West came into full maturity just as the economy of America went into a terrible downturn.  We see in Woodward how this impacted West's life and  his work.  His work is almost a case study of living through the Great Depression in America.  

Woodward really helps us understand what West's life was like once he relocated to Hollywood and became a script writer.  He always earned very good money, in part because he was reliable, if you told him to write a script by next week on race car drivers in Mexico, he could be counted  on to do it.  He made a huge score, in partnership with a friend, on a twenty six page movie proposal and was paid over $36,000 for it.  Woodward said this had the buying power of about $500,000 today.  Compressing a lot, he married a lovely woman and bought a beautiful house.  He became  good friends with people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, S. J. Pearlman ( who married West's sister) and Dorothy Parker.  Woodward's goes into a lot of fascinating detail on the business side of being a Hollywood screen writer.  I liked it a lot when I learned that West lived when he first got to Hollywood in a hotel catering to Hollywood hopefuls, extras, starlets who  are prostitutes on the side and people who came as far west as they could in America to wait to die.  Readers of The Night of the Locust will see this experience and learn how an American cartoon icon got it's name.  The Night of the Locust is considered to be a strong influence on The Crying of Lot 49 (a book I have read numerous times) and I for sure see that.  

Woodward also spends a lot of time talking about West's love of hunting and the outdoors.  He often went down to Mexico with Hollywood friends to hunt and party.  Woodward helped me understand this was a city boy's  get away.  

Woodward talks about West's marriage, sadly it was cut short soon.  We learn that before marriage West visited Brothels but Woodward does not say much on this.  I do not know if it is out of respect for   West but I would have liked more data.  He also makes veiled refrences to suggestions that West may have been bisexual at times but he provides no details.  On this I would only say I prefer things be stated for all to know, to hide details suggests it is shameful, or don't vaguely mention it and leave us to wonder.  

Woodward's book begins with the tragic car wreck, he was on the way to the wedding of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which West and his wife were killed.  Beginning and closing the book with a very detailed account of the car wreck brought a fine structure to the book.  West was at work on another book.

One of the big questions Woodward helped me understand is just why did West keep writing when all of his books were ecomonic failures.  He made more from one month as a screen writer than all his books.

Woodward very happily includes a list of all the movies West worked on and I hope to see some on TCM one day.

Woodward loves the work of West and that love brought him to a very deep understanding of his great novels.  All four are must reading for all literary autodidacts and students of America in the 1930s.

I have read a lot of literary biographies and I count Woodward's among the very best.  He places West very clearly in American and world culture.  The sections on West's reading habits was really fascinating.  

Woodward gives his theories on the novels and I found them consistently illuminating. 

Official bio of Joe Woodward from his webpage

Joe Woodward is a native of California and currently lives in Claremont, California.  He is a four-time finalist and two-time winner of a Los Angeles Press Club Award.  His non-fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Poets & Writers Magazine and regularly in The Huffington Post.  His fiction has appeared in Passages North, Notre Dame Review, Zone 3 and elsewhere.

Joe received his BA in English at the University of Redlands and an MFA in English from Brooklyn College.  He is grateful to his teachers including Allen Ginsberg, L.S. Asekoff, Joan Larkin, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Ralph Angel, Bruce McAllister, and the many others. 

He is represented by Elizabeth Evans at the Jean V. Nagger Literary Agency in New York.  

Select Publications: 


Alive Inside the Wreck A Biography of Nathanael West -- O/R, 2011

Short Fiction

"At the Airport" -- Peregrine, 2012

"The Season of Her Imagination" -- Passages North, 2012

"Salad Days" -- Notre Dame Review, 2012

"Crossings" -- Connecticut Review, 2011

"Viola" -- Lake Effects, 2011

"The Decemberists" -- Zone 3, 2010

"The Autopsy" -- Southern Indiana Review, 2010


"The Gun on the Table: Tobias Wolff -- Poets & Writers, 2008

"A Novelist's Inner Poet: Carol Muske Dukes -- Poets & Writers, 2007

"In Search of David Foster Wallace" -- Poets & Writers, 2006

"Welcome to Ellis Island: Bret Easton Ellis" -- Poets & Writers, 2005

I endorse Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of Nathanael West to any and all interested in West and his world.  

I hope to do a Q and A with Woodward so look for that soon.







Séamus Duggan said...

Fascinating post Mel, one which makes me want to take out my Collected West very soon. I replaced it recently as I couldn't remember who I had lent it to.
It's funny how the rampant commercialism of Hollywood funded novelists to be as uncommercial as they wanted in their literary work.

Mel u said...

Seamus. I love the work of West. This is a very informative biography. Thanks very much for your comment