A Cool Million (1934) was Nathanael West's third novel. A parody of the rags-to-riches fables of Horatio Alger, it is entertaining and funny in places, but a slight work compared to his masterpieces Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust.

The book - really more of a novella - is the story of a young man, Lemuel Pitkin, who shares his first name with the hero of Gulliver's Travels. Lemuel undergoes a series of adventures, which start when he sets off to a big city to seek his fortune. He is robbed and beaten up early on, and later becomes involved as an innocent dupe with a fascist organization, leading to his death.

Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart is kidnapped by grotesquely-stereotyped Chinese criminals, who force her into prostitution; although this is satirizing the portrayal of the Chinese in popular fiction, it is also itself racist and prurient. Such slippage is typical of the book, moving from mocking crude attitudes to partaking of a crude viciousness; a nihilistic, destructive streak is never far from the surface in West's writing.

The book has some serious messages, for instance expressing West's worries about the possibility of a rise in fascism occuring in America as it had in Nazi Germany, and ridiculing the idea that hard work is all you need to succeed in the USA when all around you are crooks and opportunists. However, as a novel it is lacking in interesting or sympathetic characters, and never involves the reader in the narrative. Luckily, brevity is one of West's greatest virtues (at least pre-Day of the Locust), and he ends the story before it becomes irksome.

A Cool Million is probably not available in your territory in book form, but is often bundled with West's other novels in a one-volume edition.

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