The car that is about to crush me is driven by Nathanael West.
I’m certain it’s him, even though he’s been dead for exactly sixty-five years and I’ve never seen as much as a photograph of him. He’s plowing through my intersection in a navy blue 1935 Chevy coupe with California plates. Eileen McKenney, his bride of less than nine months, is in the passenger seat, and she is looking at West, talking with the passion of someone in the midst of a fight or the grip of a cause. There are two brown leather suitcases in the backseat, the contents within waiting to be hurled into oblivion.
They are on their way back from a weekend of duck and quail hunting just over the border in Mexico. Why I know this I can’t say, but I do.
I am on my way back from Mrs. Green’s Natural Foods. In my backseat are three bags of organic fruit: clementines, grapefruit, and pineapples. It is 3:10 P.M., December 22, 2005, and my light at the intersection of US Route 6 and Mt. Hope Road in Mahopac, New York, is one hundred percent green. The light facing Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney is one hundred percent red. Just before I notice him I’m thinking about going straight up Mt. Hope for a quick visit with my mother, but because it is late and I hadn’t expected the fruit selecting to take so long and I haven’t written a word today, I decide not to. And now, of course, there’s this.
I’d say it’s going about sixty, the car bearing down on me and my organic fruit, driven by a man dead sixty-five years ago today who has low-hanging, twenty-first-century sunlight shining hard into his troubled eyes.
For a fraction of a moment I think that they are talking about communism, because I know that this was a passion of Eileen’s and that she’s been trying to get him to attend more of her communist study groups, something he had once been more amenable to, but lately he’s had no patience for such “doctrinaire politics.” But of course they’re not talking about communism, or the weather (perfect), or the sales of his latest novel (dismal). They’re talking about his dear friend Fitzgerald. Dead of a heart attack at forty-four.
Yesterday. And sixty-five years ago yesterday.
Fitzgerald had just last week been at a party at West’s new home in North Hollywood. Of course, he looked horrible. His face was red-blotched and swollen from alcohol and the weight of dreams that he’d come to realize would never be requited. Several times that night, each time with less self-deprecating wit and more maudlin surety, he had called himself a failure. Fitzgerald said that he knew his best work was behind him and that it all would be doomed to obscurity. And while West (and Eileen and Scott’s girlfriend Sheila) tried to convince Fitzgerald otherwise, West couldn’t help but think the same thing, that he too was a failure.
So this is what Nathanael West is thinking right now, I’m certain, that he doesn’t want to die a failure. Ironically, he’s oblivious to the fact that this is exactly what he’s in the midst of doing. He knows he ought to be mourning the death of Scott but he can’t stop contemplating the ugly parallels and the black cloud that has followed his work for more than a decade. One great novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, published just as its Depression-ravaged publisher declared bankruptcy and later promoted as a tawdry lending-library expose. The other, The Day of the Locust, recently released as Europe and Asia and the rest of the world sink into war. It was too dark for an anxious nation, particularly in a year that offers the hopeful messages of The Grapes of Wrath or the escapism of The Wizard of Oz. That was one of Fitzgerald’s theories, anyway. Regardless, at the moment of his impending death, less than fifteen hundred people in the world have read it. Another irony in the making: at one point, his working title for The Day of the Locust was The Cheated.
But still. Maybe the weekend nights in Mexico were filled with the truest love he had ever known and he’d opened his eyes this morning content with himself, his wife, his art, and his recent screenwriting successes for the first time, critics and sales figures be damned.
Maybe he was certain that the next novel, once he got a break from the screenwriting and actually got it all down, would be better than the others combined.
Or maybe he’s driving so fast because he doesn’t care anymore, because he knows that no matter what happens his fate will be the same.
I wonder if there’s anything I can do about this. If Nathanael West has somehow bent time, and is careening around the edges of my time, for a reason. Perhaps because, like Nathanael West, I was born on October 17. And like Nathanael West, I spent the summers of my adolescence mixing cement and laying brick with my mason father, convinced that there was something bigger in store for me and, right up until this moment, believing it. Like, I’m sure, Nathanael West. Or maybe this is just one of those things you see before you die.
* * * *
Finally, West sees me, halfway across the intersection, far too late for brakes or any kind of quick-thinking, twenty-first-century, defensive driving maneuver to matter. But he doesn’t scream or widen his eyes or jerk the wheel left or right. Instead he just looks at me and smiles.
I want to tell him that he won’t be remembered as a failure. That within twenty years his work (as well as, of course, Fitzgerald’s) will be appreciated and championed and taught and included in any canon of American literature worth anything. I want to tell him about the nice 1970 film adaptation of The Day of the Locust, and of the hilarious twenty-first-century incarnation of his character from that story, Homer Simpson. What I don’t want to tell him is that he and his wife are about to die. That Ellen will die in the ambulance and that he will be pronounced dead at 4:10 this afternoon by a man who has never heard of Nathanael West or Homer Simpson or F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a makeshift hospital sixty miles from the Arizona border, outside the town of El Centro, California.
And I absolutely don’t want to tell him that tomorrow his death will be mostly overlooked because Fitzgerald, contrary to his own harsh self-assessments, will prove to be much more popular in death than he ever imagined in life, and that his passing is the better story this week, the sexier American tragedy.
About the only thing I’d tell him right now, if I could, is, Watch out!
Now the intersection is no longer mine. It’s all Nathanael West’s. I’m no longer in present-day Mahopac, New York, but in Imperial County, California, circa December 22, 1940. I’m not in my 2004 Volkswagen Passat but in a fruit truck, a 1929 Model A pickup with rickety pine sideboards. I see greening farmland to the north and west. In the rearview mirror, to the east, is an endless stretch of brown desert.
I close my eyes, and when I open them I am still looking into the eyes of Nathanael West the instant before his premature death, and as I grip the wheel and brace for the inevitable I wonder what he sees.