Friday, May 07, 2010

Book: “Lonleyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney” by Marion Meade 2010

Quick quiz, gang: Who were Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney? And no Googling, please.
If you id’ed West as the author of two minor classics of American literature (“Miss Lonleyhearts” and “The Day of the Locust”), slap a gold star on your forehead. If you knew that Eileen McKenney had inspired her sister Ruth to write a series of folksy short stories that appeared in The New Yorker in the late ‘30s, and that said stories inspired the hit play “My Sister Eileen,” which later led to the great musical “Wonderful Town” (Bernstein-Comden-Green), well--go straight to grad work at the Jonathan Schwartz College of the Great American Songbook.
Marion Meade has made a valiant effort to make these two people and their world interesting, but in the end her subjects fail her. Both West and McKenney died young in a car crash, shortly after their wedding in 1940 (West was 37, McKenney 27--and West, a rotten driver, caused the accident).
Yes, their paths crossed some of the famous literati of the era: Scott Fitzgerald, S.J. Perleman, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, others. But few memorable encounters ensued, although I’d love to have been at the dinner when Eileen, a half-baked Communist, berated Fitzgerald for writing about frivolous people (take that Nicole and Dick Diver). Sister Ruth, who was fully baked, had conscripted Eileen into the cause.
But let’s get back to Nathanael West. His real name was Nathan Weinstein, and his immigrant family was relatively well off when West was born in New York in 1903 (that would change, of course, thanks to the Crash of ’29). At DeWitt Clinton High School, then one of the top public schools in NYC, West chose to study whatever interested him in the reading room of the main branch of the public library, many blocks from his high school, which explains why West failed to graduate.
His family, determined that West should get a college education, acquired a diploma for West, probably by bribing someone at the Board of Ed (a not uncommon practice back then, apparently). West got into Tufts, but spent his freshman year screwing around and doing no work. Tufts asked him to take a hike.
But wait, West’s parents would not be deterred. Turns out there had been another Nathan Weinstein at Tufts, four years older, who had recently transferred to Tuft’s medical school. West somehow got hold of Weinstein’s transcript and submitted it as a would-be transfer student to . . . Brown! And got in! And somehow managed to graduate!
Does this tell you something about Nathanael West’s character?
Now none of this means a damn in terms of his fiction (although he could be a bit loose in the plagiarism department, and that can be troubling). But it does make the bio a bit of a slog; who wants to spend time with this guy?
As for Eileen, she’s not as interesting as sister Ruth, who made her famous. But even Ruth’s bit of a bore, talking about the cause, and plunging into deep depressions. There’s nothing “screwball” about these folks.
The bio also suffers from Meade’s pedestrian style, and she depends on far too many clichés (stars twinkle, something fits something to a T; editor, where art thou on this book?).
As for “Miss Lonelyhearts” and “The Day of the Locust,” strap yourself into a chair, drop a Zoloft or two and enter a world of bitter, freakish, lost, disturbing people leading dead-end lives who slowly awaken to the dreadful reality that for them it’s basically game-over time. Not exactly material ripe for a Bernstein, Comden and Green musical.


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