An ingenious dual biography of a classic American author and an unlikely literary muse.
The romance between novelist Nathanael West (1903–1940) and Eileen McKenney (1914–1940) was tragically brief. They met in October 1939, married six months later and died in a car accident shortly before Christmas 1940. Consequently, only a fraction of the latest biography by Meade (Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, 2004, etc.) covers the life the two shared together. However, the book shows that they were often kindred spirits, and the author offers a glimpse of how literary life functioned on the East and West Coasts in the ’20s and ’30s. The son of an upper-middle-class Manhattan family, West grew up as a ne’er-do-well who entered Brown University by essentially committing identity theft. Battling his own lassitude and a pervasive anti-Semitism—he eventually changed his name from Nathan Weinstein—he found time in New York to produce a handful of comic novels, including the acclaimed Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). He struck his fortune in Hollywood, though, getting to know the many writers who headed to California to make a quick buck from the studios—a culture West skewered in his final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939). McKenney wasn’t an author, but she was embraced by New York’s literati thanks to her sister, Ruth, whose series of embellished humor pieces about Eileen ran in the New Yorker. For all their notoriety, each harbored deep anxieties that helped connect them. West questioned his talents and bemoaned his poor sales, while McKenney was a product of a broken home who raised her son alone after divorcing her alcoholic husband. Meade doesn’t labor to suggest that the pairing was kismet, nor does she aggressively foreshadow the accident that cut short her subject’s lives. Instead, she foregrounds their intelligence, humor and luck—both dodged the worst of the Great Depression—and creates a substantive tale about finding the good life in tough times.
A funny, informed, daringly constructed literary biography.