Nothing in the books I knew at the time reflected what I saw and felt growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s in the United States. This was before the stereotypical 1960s began in earnest, around 1963, with the Beatles and Dylan, organised protest and the demands for radical change. Until then it was an era of confusion and weirdness, unwritten about, as far as I could tell.
I was a mediocre student, a loose fit in a big unruly family, frustrated and befuddled, feeling overlooked, if not buried alive. When I sought advice about my prospects from Miss Dole, the ‘guidance counselor’ at my high school, she shrieked, ‘You’re not going to college – you’ll never get in! You’re not going anywhere!’ Dressed in a blouse of red polka dots, her grey hair in a bun, she had the thin, hysterical face of a scold, the eye-distorting lenses in her cat-eye frames calling to mind an interrogator.
Despite her, I remained a committed fantasist. My refuge was reading and, covertly, I had begun to write. I had no definite subjects but I was starting to see possibilities. Such mental activity, a bit like idle play, is seldom remarked upon, but it is crucial to a beginner – not the act of writing, but of preparation. As an aspiring writer, I processed in my mind what I saw and heard into material for writing, placing myself at a little distance and converting it, making it my own, a sort of ruminant rehearsal for writing.
What I saw was violent, foolish, grotesque, comic, crooked and racist; what I heard were distinct voices, stern voices, funny ones, strange accents. I muttered and mimicked these voices. My mood was satirical. All this was forming in my head, not on paper.
I was not imagining the violence or racism or clownishness. It was there to see in the magazines and newspapers, and on our flickering black-and-white television set: lynchings of blacks in the Deep South in the 1950s, hellfire in church sermons, the neon signs in Boston, where the Old Howard Theatre in Scollay Square put on stripteases as well as vaudeville acts. It was in the National Enquirer, which specialised in outrageous stories, hilarious and horrible: ‘Fish with a Human Face!’, ‘Mermaid Found in Tuna Sandwich’. Marilyn Monroe’s funeral on a hot August day in 1962 in Los Angeles epitomised the era for me: a small group of celebrity mourners, and at the cemetery’s perimeter hundreds, perhaps thousands of frenzied fans, howling their grief, held back by police, all of it reported by the press as a mob scene. I was not worldly enough to understand it as decadence. I felt a kind of joy and fear, and seized on the surrealism in it, turning it over in my head.
This was the America I knew (and was trying to process), but it was not depicted in anything I read. It was not in Hemingway or Faulkner, nor in the newer heavyweights Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and James Jones, who seemed to be staking their claim to the great American novel.
It was at this point I discovered Nathanael West. Although all his books had been published in the 1930s, they seemed to anticipate the America that was throbbing all around me, with its violence and disappointments, its spiritual emptiness, its foolishness and its freaks.
I had come across Miss Lonelyhearts as a paperback, and then found the New Directions edition of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, and then, around 1960, an omnibus edition of his novels, which also included The Dream Life of Balso Snell and A Cool Million. The introduction to this edition was by the English writer and publisher Alan Ross. His note of special pleading (‘West’s slightness of reputation is not easy to understand’) resonated with my feeling of being marginal, like West, if not entirely overlooked.
Balso, his first work of fiction, hardly a novel, was a sequence of outrageous encounters. It begins with Balso Snell in Troy discovering the discarded Trojan horse. Curious and bold, he enters the thing by its posterior and meets various outlandish characters, including Maloney the Areopagite, who celebrates the life of St Puce, a flea who had lived in the armpit of Christ. Roaming in this underworld, Balso engages with other extraordinary characters in a narrative that is preposterous, funny and scatological. It was unlike anything I had read and it suited my mood. There was something of youthful rebellion in it, absurd and anarchic, an anti-novel. I did not know that West had been inspired by surrealists and Dadaists; nor did I know that it had appeared first in an edition of five hundred copies and had been a critical and commercial failure.
West’s next novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, was nothing like Balso, yet it also resonated with me. Its main character is a journalist known only as Miss Lonelyhearts, who at the bidding of his boss, Shrike, reluctantly agrees to write an advice column. The letters he receives are pathetic, written by desperate people seeking help. After a while Miss Lonelyhearts is so pained by their plight, and his inability to soothe them, that he undergoes a spiritual crisis. At the time of my reading this novel, my guilty pleasure was reading ‘Ask Ann Landers’ and ‘Dear Abby’ – syndicated agony aunts – and the anxious or beseeching letters they replied to. West’s novel seemed to me a small masterpiece, haunting and funny, and spare.
My parents seldom guided me in my reading, but one sort of novel they urged on me were works about striving, especially the moralising novels of Horatio Alger. Alger was from Boston and his books epitomised the rewards of work: Do and Dare; or A Brave Boy’s Fight for Fortune, Phil the Fiddler; or, The Story of a Young Street Musician. There were many more. Though these sententious books had been published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, my parents felt they were still relevant and approved of their moral tone and promotion of a work ethic. I hated them.
So West’s novel A Cool Million, a satirical take on the Alger books, thrilled me. I was defying my parents, defying ‘strive and succeed’, ‘rags to riches’ and the rest of the guff. Subtitled ‘The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin’, it mocked politicians and patriotism, as well as humility and hope; it showed that the American model of success was full of shysters and con men. Looking back on it today, I see that one of his characters, a former US president and mendacious hustler, ‘Shagpoke’ Whipple, anticipates Donald Trump.
West’s last novel was The Day of the Locust, his satire on Hollywood – not the tycoons or movie idols, but the out-of-work extras, the losers, the grifters and the sort of vaudevillians who had ended up at the Old Howard. There is also a combative dwarf, an annoying child actor and a madly attractive starlet who works part-time in a brothel to pay the rent. One of the set pieces is a bloody cockfight. Entangled in all this is a decent man and accomplished artist, Tod Hackett, whose ambition is to paint a great mural, ‘The Burning of Los Angeles’. The mob scene that ends this book much resembles the Marilyn Monroe funeral that fascinated me around the time I read the novel, with the mob composed of people who have gone to California in search of movie stars, sunshine and oranges. But they’ve been tricked. They ‘burn with resentment’:
Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed.
And so the mob turns violent, and Tod Hackett becomes unhinged. In this novel, which West was planning to call The Cheated, he perfected the hyperreality of his prose: ‘Vas you dere, Sharley?’ an Indian says, ‘showing the black inside of his mouth, purple tongue and broken orange teeth’. In the mob are ‘a young man with a kidney-shaped head and waxed mustaches’ and a stranger wearing a Panama hat and horn-rimmed glasses crazily hugging a woman. ‘He had one of his hands inside her dress and was biting her neck.’
I read these books until I knew them almost by heart. But I knew virtually nothing about West the man. I did not know that these four books (even with well-wishers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner) had failed, that West had been forced to make a living writing screenplays for B movies, or that when he died in a car crash in 1940, at the age of thirty-seven, his books were out of print. What I was sure of was that I had a literary hero.
Under his spell I wrote my first two novels, Westian in tone and subject: Waldo, about a young, slightly deranged hack writer, and Murder in Mount Holly, about a group of elderly quarrelling cranks who decide to rob a bank. When I could take no more of the 1960s in America, I went to Africa and found new things to care about, but the satirical detachment that West had shown me remained in my soul.
A curious postscript: Alan Ross, the West enthusiast, published Murder in Mount Holly in 1969 and when I met him at a party at some point in the late 1980s, after I’d published over a dozen works of fiction, including The Mosquito Coast, he said, ‘Murder in Mount Holly – your best book.’