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“Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became American again.” So ends A Cool Million, Nathanael West’s now largely forgotten skewering of classic American rags-to-riches stories. Beginning like a pluck-and-luck Horatio Alger tale, West’s very own “Ragged Dick” — Lemuel Pitkin — is mercilessly brutalized over the course of 100 pages, losing his money, his mother’s home, his teeth, an eye, a thumb, a leg, his scalp, and by the end of the absurdist novella his life. My yellowed 1976 paperback of The Collected Works of Nathanael West calls it a “Candide-like satire,” but on recently rereading it, I was struck by how much of the story — including that near-last line — had age-of-Trump overtones to it.
So you can add A Cool Million to a list of older works, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, that might have something to offer in grasping the nature of our present moment . “Obviously, no book is a perfect analogy for the complex events playing out in American politics and around the world,” Sophie Gilbert wrote in a January roundup of such books for The Atlantic. “But for readers, historical works can offer insight into recurring societal trends, as well as reassurance that this moment isn’t unprecedented.”
In his article today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich suggests another author worth revisiting — novelist John Updike — and a caution against worrying too much about President Trump and not nearly enough about the culture, the society, the country, and the people who put him in the White House. “Trump is not cause, but consequence,” writes Bacevich tellingly.
Toward the end of A Cool Million, Lemuel Pitkin scores a vaudeville gig in which he buys newspapers each day and fashions them into clubs. With them, nightly, two comedians “beat him violently over the head and body” while telling jokes, before finally employing a huge mallet (labeled “The Works”) to “demolish” him and bring down the house. “His toupee flew off, his eye and teeth popped out, and his wooden leg was knocked into the audience” to a chorus of guffaws, writes West of this sick form of entertainment for a deeply sick society.
Called upon to aid a rebellion he had helped foster in an earlier stage, Pitkin is soon publicly felled by an assassin’s bullet, becoming a martyr and so ushering the National Revolutionary Party, a fascist-style group, to power in America. Trump’s path to the presidency may have been slightly less absurd but, as Bacevich suggests, it also stems from an increasingly sick society. Luckily, Bacevich offers a possible remedy to the current age, although it’s one he’s not certain you’ll like. Read his piece — and prescriptions — at your own risk!