Nathanael West’s “A Cool Million”

1I am no optimist. I hold no delusions for the bounty that supposedly will become my future. But it’s hard to read something like A Cool Million and not feel a piece thy realistic self crumble and disintegrate, fall to the abyss of meaningless cruelty and horror that is the world of Lemuel Pitkin. West creates a brilliant satire of Alger’s rags to riches story, up ends the American Dream with a dream, or nightmare as the case may be, of his own.

The message is clear: there is no future to be gained, no riches or glory or fame. There is no security or safety. The ones you love will be washed under, and you along with them. The “dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin” is precisely as it sounds. At each stage of Lem’s journey towards a cool million, he loses yet another piece of his body. First his teeth, which are drawn out during his first jailing. Then an eyeball, lost to an injury in an attempt to stop a horse-drawn carriage. Then gradually, a thumb, a leg, his scalp…

Sent off to make his way, to earn a living and safe his mother’s home, Lemuel is blindly set up to fail. His fable-esque naivety becomes his variation of hubris, a blind and optimistic ambition towards nothing. He becomes a terrifying metaphor for the drastic make over dream-seeking will force upon the hopeful and ambitious. Lemuel Pitkin’s inability to conform is his downfall: where one must learn judgement and deceit, Lem is gullible and honest and purposefully unlucky. He learns to avoid the police, as he is the chosen scapegoat for many a crime, and that starting over is a constant: not inaccurate against the scheme of reality.

However, West makes a viable point about the American Dream. It is a well-constructed myth backed by air and dream clouds, and perhaps stories of the lucky few. He reveals the timeless truth that everyone wants so desperately to ignore: the American Dream is one great big, lie, well-advertised for the sake of developing economy and putting to work little hopeful bees. And all the while, as vaguely sickening and bizarre as Lem’s experiences are, West’s humor is catching. The ridiculous racist gestures, poking ridicule, and hysterical happenings, all drawn in such nonchalance  as if the world was built off an M.C. Escher drawing and walking sideways was standard practice; no one is spared from West’s mocking. Every character is wholly a part of West’s strange view of America, and each fits in just perfectly.

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