Books: A Great Despiser

NATHANAEL WEST: THE ART OF HIS LIFE by Jay Martin. 435 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.

Nathanael West habitually wore what he called "the smile of an anarchist . . . with a bomb in his pocket." He also carried the bomb. During the '30s, West flipped two high-explosive satires (Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust) at Middle America. Hardly anybody noticed. His four novels, which took 14 years to write (1924-1938), earned him exactly $1,280 in royalties. Twenty years after his shocking death he was recognized as the finest and blackest American humorist since Mark Twain went to his...

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