Born into a family of overachievers -- wealthy builders and contractors, who begat lawyers and businessmen -- writer Nathanael West was a bit of a misfit. He dropped out of high school, got into Tufts on the basis of his cousin's transcript (they had the same name -- Nathan Weinstein), flunked out, then suddenly reappeared as a junior at Brown University, there, apparently, thanks to yet another borrowed transcript. No scholar, he made it to graduation by the skin of his teeth. He knocked around for a few years, trying this and that, managing a hotel, acutely aware that he was an embarrassment to his family. But West was no dummy; he was just a true nonconformist. All that time, he was writing, developing his peculiar, hard-edged, grotesquely comic novels, all of which bombed upon publication, one after another.
This new biography, "Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney," is a wonderful read. Marion Meade ("Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties") knows how to nail down terrific telling details and then dish them out in the most delightful way. It's a great marriage of scholarship and gossip.
West's wife, McKenney, had a life not much happier than her husband's. Her mother died young, her father's second wife wanted nothing to do with her, her sister Ruth was talented but deeply depressed and tried to commit suicide every couple of years. When Eileen and West finally got together, out in California where he was writing screenplays (as well as "The Day of the Locust") and she was working for Disney, they found happiness. But if you marry a guy who once ran 11 consecutive red lights, as West had, you might want to take over the driving. McKenney did not, and the pair died way too young, in a fiery crash on a lonely road.