Bringing Nathanael West Back To Life: A Review of “Alive Inside The Wreck”

Alive Inside The Wreck
by Joe Woodward
OR Books, 272 p.

One of the curiosities of time is that later generations can resuscitate a career, or the importance of an artist. Stewing in obscurity, scrounging for money, forced to work beneath their talents in their own time, artists turn into revered heroes long after they pass. Sometimes, this occurs naturally, as with Melville, while other times, people need to actively push an author as a forgotten, or a hidden treasure. Jonathan Franzen attempted this with Paula Fox, though it seems he largely failed, and recently Jonathan Lethem attempted this with Nathanael West. While, a writer’s writer for some time now, West continues to stay within the circle of literary folk.  Now Joe Woodward in his choppy, but ultimately compelling biography of West entitled, Alive Inside The Wreck, makes a good case for the widespread contemporary relevance of West.

We know from Virgina Woolf that all biographies are a sort of gamble, a precarious attempt to, “present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow…the reality of truth and artistry of fiction,” and writing about a writer only exacerbates these issues. Yet, Woodward, a talented writer on other writers understands how to plunge into the depth of the matter, to find out from where exactly West’s relevance and power emerges.

Woodward betrays this earnest desire in his piece In Search of David Foster Wallace. In it, as the title states, Woodward asks, “But who is DFW, really? What makes him tick?”. Consequently, he attempts to interview DFW, but to no avail, he is left to find clues of DFW’s life in his works. Similar to that attempt, here, without access to the actual West, Woodward scours archives, the testimonial of friends, and an assortment of documents for clues, clues to help him “understand” West, his desires, his motivations.

Woodward an astute writer when it comes to other writers, achieves his goals perhaps too quickly. In other words: He opens too well. First, he quotes two fascinating appropriate statements from West on Violence and then on the Novel. Then he simply begins with a preface that promises more than Woodward can deliver.

“Nathanael West worried over America: its landscape, its people, its future, its art…there was plenty to worry about. America had collapsed, caved in. Europe was in step. Yet what interested West most was how to fashion himself into a great American writer, in essence, how to write The Great American Novel. He settled, finally, on two ingredients: violence and brevity. “You only have time to explode,” he said. And he did.”

 But where do you go from there? Woodward goes on to describe the car accident, i.e. the “explosion”, that killed him and his wife just two weeks after West’s friend, one F. Scott Fitzgerald died. Woodward spends the rest of his book exploring his initial claim of West’s importance and explosion, a claim he somewhat substantiates, but often at the expense of the larger task of painting West’s character. In short chapters, explicitly titled like the Accident, or the Library, or Hollywood 1938, and Hollywood Revisited, Woodward searches through West’s trajectory to find the seeds of the his literary and personal motivations, to varying success. Some chapters, like the Library in which Woodward speculates on the meaning of what West did and did not have in his library feel not only like pure conjecture, but like pure projection.

Other times Woodward gets lost in the details, and though beautiful details mark out the territory of a consummate artist, in biographies, details frequently weigh the book down, because a life is a series of details, and a biographer needs to balance truth with compelling writing. Woodward at one point writes of West’s woeful skills at playing baseball in camp. Good to know. However, Woodward does capture the particular bitter taste of West’s sadness over his lack of fame, as well as his general personality as one of a restless soul, adrift in a perceived sea of violence, meaninglessness, and superficiality.

Largely, though an interesting, and in many ways a comprehensive biography, the rest of the books feels at odds with the initial preface. Woodward attempts to depict West as someone who lived up to that famous statement from the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel in which, “above all, you must build your life as if it were a work of art.” Consequently, West represents the dichotomy of his times, a debonair slob, a recluse social outdoorsman, and an autodidact who failed out of college, but lied to get back in. A Romantic bleeding heart sensitive to the deep pain pulsating throughout the world.

But looking at the larger picture, In no way did West live an explosive life, rather, from what it sounds like he lived as Thoreau described, a life of quiet desperation. His books made a total of about 1200 dollars in his lifetime. None of his scripts gave him fame, or acclaim, and his circle of influence barely spread past his friends, geniuses like Fitzgerald and S.J. Perelman, who always saw the artist in West, regardless of his public stature. Even if the case could be made that he made a great American novel or two, West, as described in this book, wanted worldwide, or at least national acclaim, not to become a writer’s writer known only to a few, in need of constant resuscitation. And even in that regard, Woodward slightly misses the mark in attempting to explain the importance and relevance of West, a task better accomplished by Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem, in his introductory essay to New Directions reprinting of West’s more successful novels (Miss Loneyhearts and The Day of the Locust) writes a succinct summation of West’s strength and enduring relevance, one that manages to capture the magic and relevance of West:

“West’s ultimate subject is the challenge (the low odds, he might insist) of negotiating between, on the one hand, the ground-zero imperatives and agonies of the body and, on the other, the commoditized rhetorics of persuasion, fear, envy, guilt, acquisition, and sacrifice (those voices that George Saunders has nicknamed “The Braindead Megaphone” of Late Capitalism), in hopes of locating and intimate ground of operation from which an authentic loving gesture might be launched. That he identified this as a baseline twentieth-century American dilemma as early as he did granted West a superb relevance to the future of American Literature-its ongoing future, I’d say.”

 Ultimately, even while Lethem captures much of West’s appeal, as with any writer, West’s oeuvre speaks much more than any accumulation of facts could, or description, however poetic or insightful. However, in a more modest sense, Woodward succeeds in reviving West for this reviewer.  Immediately after I finished his book I went to buy West’s novels and found myself a new writer to care about, deeply. I read West’s short, but masterful Miss Lonelyhearts and I suddenly understood Woodward’s attempt on a new level. West writes with such an astute understanding of the human condition that you can only assume he lived a magical, artistic, violent life. However, even with this in mind, after reading Woodward’s incisive biography I still cannot reconcile West with his works, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle + and our Tumblr.