A Cool Million is a political novel, in the sense that it targets a political establishment which is corrupt and racist, bullying and philistine, but its strangeness left the political movement largely nonplussed. It is a novel of the end of the American dream. It is Candide recast for twentieth-century America, the destruction of an innocent by a system he simply cannot comprehend. Lem Pitkin is a simple, if not simple-minded, boy who is torn apart – literally so, he is systematically divested of body parts – teeth, eye, thumb, scalp, leg – with painful regularity as he seeks to make his fortune and lay claim to that mythical, tarnished dream of American wealth and happiness. In doing this, West explains, his intention was to ‘rewrit[e] the Horatio Alger myth – from barge boy to president of from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in one generation.’
It is hard to tell whether one likes or dislikes this novel. It is a peculiar, hallucinatory experience. The cartoonish humour is, at once, wickedly funny and horridly cliched, bluntly didactic and acutely observant. One either rides with its eccentricity or is made sea-sick by it. I think, in the end, its success revolves around the extent to which you think West is offering the reader any sense of hope; indeed, whether it can be inferred that West himself possessed any of that virtue.
The relentlessness with which Lem’s picaresque life unfolds in succeeding disastrous set-pieces does become wearying, and before long what initially seemed like highly effective satire-dressed-as-whimsy loses both its humour and its impact. In that, it's a bit like Vonnegut when he's off-form. Lem is a construct, completely empty, devoid of any emotion or knowledge or feeling other than the quest for the American dream. He is completely passive. His life happens to him. He dies. From that point of view, A Cool Million is probably the least successful of West's novels.
By the end of the novel, Lem is embroiled in a Fascist...
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