Book Acquired, 9.12.11 — Nathanael West Biography


This one’s new from OR BooksJoe Woodward’s Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West. (Sorry for the extraordinarily amateurish photograph—the glossy cover spit back much light). I read the first three chapters this afternoon, and Woodward has a punchy, even terse style that I greatly appreciate in a literary biographer. It’s rare that the literary critic, “showing a little plumage,” to borrow a phrase from James Wood, knows when to remove himself from the text under discussion. Woodward’s writing here dispenses with any airy rhetoric, cutting sharply to bone in telegraphic sentences and short chapters.It’s the kind of  beginning that makes me want to keep reading. Here’s the publisher’s description—

From his name to his college transcript to his literary style, Nathanael West was self-invented. Born Nathan Weinstein, the author of the classics Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of theLocust (1939) was an uncompromising artist obsessed with writing the perfect novel. He pursued his passion from New York to California, flirting dangerously with the bleak, faux-glamour of Hollywood as the country suffered through the grim realities of the Great Depression. At the center of a circle of vigorous young literary writers that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Cowley, William Carlos Williams, S. J. Perelman, and Dashiell Hammett, West rose to become one of the most original literary talents of the twentieth century—an accomplished yet regrettably underappreciated master of the short lyric novel.

In December of 1940, West — a notoriously bad driver — was racing back from a vacation in Mexico with his young bride of eight months when he crashed at full speed into another car. He was dead at 37. Just as he was finally starting to enjoy financial stability as a Hollywood screenwriter, he died in the California desert.

For this book, the first biography on West alone in over 40 years, Joe Woodward combed the archives at The Huntington Library and the John Hay Library at Brown University. He had access to personal letters, photographs, unpublished manuscripts and corrected typescripts as well as seldom-heard taped interviews with S. J. Perelman, Dalton Trumbo, Matthew Josephson and others.

Alive Inside the Wreck comes alive as it explores West’s struggle to survive both the writer’s life and the 1930s.