‘It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are,’ writes Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust (1939), commonly regarded as the best novel ever written about Hollywood, that factory of broken dreams. West’s sad, even pathetic characters yearn for something they can never have—which can’t be had—and their lives spiral into chaos, slipping towards a violence that is beyond them and which no effort can bring under control.

The Great Depression took root in West (1903-1940), an American writer whose wild, sometimes grotesque fantasies have become part of our collective imagination. In this fresh, elegant biography by Joe Woodward—the first in four decades—West comes alive, a strange young man on the prowl, a crazy fool, a fantasist. ‘The dream life of Nathanael West,’ writes Woodward, ‘was surely a vivid one—well-suited for novel writing and less-suited for Hollywood pictures.’ Yet he managed, in thirty-seven years, to assemble a small but permanent body of work, and—like Keats or Rupert Brooke or any writer of immense talent whose vision is cut short—one can only guess where he might have gone.

Read the full review in Literary Review

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