“Do you know why they call it the American Dream? They call it that because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
This is a quote from stand-up comedian George Carlin.
And Nathanael West’s “A Cool Million” only serves as evidence towards Carlin’s statement. In the novel, the protagonist, Lemuel Pitkin, finds himself on a journey towards climbing up the socioeconomic ladder after finding out that the house he and his mother live in is on the verge of being repossessed. Pitkin’s never ending optimism throughout his journey is commendable. He is able to place trust in everyone he crosses paths with. Unfortunately, one of his greatest strengths is also one of his greatest weaknesses, as those who he crosses paths with more often than not take advantage of him. Pitkin faces robbery, a multitude of injuries, and other hardships. Essentially, throughout his journey, despite how much he works towards the American Dream — with an endless sense of hopefulness in the system — he cannot obtain it.
Pitkin isn’t the only character in the novel to face this outcome. His love interest, Betty Prail, is also a victim in believing in the American Dream, which at this point, is conveyed by West to be a myth. Prail faces different rugged roads along her path towards the American Dream — rape and sex enslavement to name a few — but there is no doubt that regardless of what hardships that are faced, her hard work, similar to Pitkin’s, yields no results. Again, we still West’s emphasis on the American Dream — as Carlin stated — just that: a dream.
West also illustrates why the American Dream is unattainable in his novel. In one scene, Pitkin is unable to pay for his train ticket, but the conductor, being “good- natured” and feeling sympathetic towards the disabled man, only threw him out when the train came to a curve. I find this interesting because it would seem that most would not characterize the conductor as “good-natured” for his action — that the conductor would only be considered “good-natured” if he had let Pitkin stay on the train. The irony West utilizes helps develop why the American Dream is unattainable by most: the “everyone for themselves” mentality that forces people to put their self interests above others and their well-being coupled with the dehumanization of the poor, especially the homeless, make achieving the American Dream difficult. They act as barriers that cannot be removed unless one commits an unethical act to get ahead.
In addition to the smorgasbord of events that Pitkin and Prail face, there exists another portion of the plot, which involved the ridiculous Shagpole Whippie, a former president. Whippie, unlike the others, is able to achieve success but through not so commendable acts, which includes exploiting the death of Pitkin in order to further his political agenda regarding immigration. The success of Whippie in being able to rile up supporters against illegal immigrants, or “aliens” he calls them, through unethical means only enforces West’s stance on the American Dream. Ultimately, throughout “A Cool Million,” West reminds his audience how the American Dream is just a dream, except for those who find ways to exploit those around them.
Now West’s novel is “supposedly” satirical. I say supposedly because a satirical piece is a hyperbolized representation of the happenings in real life. It should not be an accurate representation of the happenings in real life, but we see that no longer being the case with a Donald Trump presidency in the fates of America. An article from Split Sider goes further into detail about the similarities between Whippie’s rise to power and Donald Trump’s, but essentially, they are shocking. The fact that West’s article can relate to modern America raises questions regarding whether or not Americans are able to achieve their goals without losing their moral compasses, which to me at least, is especially scary in a country that is a hodgepodge of minorities constantly facing oppression by the privileged elites.