Serious people have been apologizing for Nathanael West since he began to write. His first novel, the story of a man who crawls into the anus of the Trojan horse and wanders its intestines, was described by Harold Bloom as “an auspicious technical essay, marred by grandiose overreaching.” Miss Lonelyhearts, his second, lacks “psychologically rounded” characters by design, Jonathan Lethem tells us. Elizabeth Hardwick called West’s third book “wasteful brilliance.” His fourth, some believe, is the best Hollywood novel ever. “[O]nce we understand that The Day of the Locust is intended as high comedy,” Norman Podhoretz wrote, “this apparently weird, disjointed book begins to assume a meaningful shape.” Behind this advocacy looms the sense that West’s pursuits are less than what a novelist’s should be—that writing slim and peculiar books, then moving to L.A. to churn out B movies and shoot animals for fun (and not wild beasts, like Hemingway, but small birds, mostly doves), is not enough to vindicate an inconsistent oeuvre. West’s “failure to get the best out of [his] best years,” said Edmund Wilson, who was his friend, “may certainly be laid partly to Hollywood, with its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted.” Readers, in other words, should blame the neighborhood.
more from Nathan Heller at Slate here.