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A Cool Million

A Cool Million - Nathanael West There's a good chance I've read or deliberately chosen not to read this short work 10 years ago when it was paired with the book Miss Lonelyhearts. But this time, in this era, in this part of Bulgaria, the lurid cartoon quality of the book, exposing the brutality of dream makers, seemed much deeper and more timely.

People call it a satire, but the characters are far too broad and stooge-like for satire. So it didn't surprise me that West started as a cartoonist. It reads more like an especially violent South Park production, or any number of cartoon-like copies of the past decade. It seems the author is taking a cannon to everything and anything, just for the enjoyment it gives him.

I may have heard a professor at Harvard mention that all satire is conservative. Whereas Southpark will draw in its claws at jokes about George Bush or Mormons, this book by West has an exagerrated respect for jokes about Jews and, possibly, communists. Written in 1934, one of the book's main characters is an ex-U.S. president who recruits teams of unemployed followers called "Leather Shirts." The book would seem to be satirizing Hitler in a surprisingly gentle way. To be honest, one or two of the ex-president's speeches are even inspiring, if you ignore the fact that he blames international Jews and communists for everything. He tells lines of unemployed men waiting for free food that he's for the middle class most of all. He says he's against the capitalists who make all the money and the unionists who would try to take it. That is a bad paraphrase.

It's sometimes very hard to tell if West is a racist. For a start, despite the Jewish comments, he was born Jewish. He includes another brief comment about why black people rape so many white women. It had the chilling effect of the lawyer's last comment in the John Grisham movie about a black man's trial for rape. But subsequent plotlines have the ex-president enlisting the help of lynch-happy idiots somewhere in the south, so it would seem the comment was extremely sharp satire. Other plot lines have a beautiful and very funny warning about American materialism, as delivered by a Native American who then quickly scalps an innocent stooge at random.

I don't really think this book is much deeper than a cartoon, but if it satirizes anything, it satirizes stooges who become martyrs to other people's grand ideas, such as the American Dream. I have been falling apart a bit myself, while imagining that I'm on the path to millions and/or success. The main character/stooge has it much worse, so finding myself in Bulgaria, reading it at a time when world politics seems more cartoonish and violent than a decade or so ago, seemed especially timely.