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A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin by Nathanael West.
A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin is a twentieth-century satirical novel by Nathanael West. First published in 1934, the book satirizes the American Dream and the idea of eternal optimism through the tribulations and mishaps of its main character. A critically acclaimed novel, it is a classic parable of 1930s America. West, born Nathanael von Wallenstein Weinstein, anglicized his name to separate his writing from his heritage. When he wasn’t writing comic strips and novels, he wrote B-movie screenplays for minor Hollywood studios.
Lemuel Pitkin’s father died a while ago. Lemuel lives with his mother in a quaint cottage in a quiet town where there is never any trouble in 1930s Vermont. Now that he has finished high school, he feels directionless. Life is boring and predictable. His mother suggests that he find a job to give him a purpose, but Lemuel is slow to find one.
One day, everything changes for the Pitkin family. The landlord’s lawyer tells them that, if they don’t pay off their home debts in 90 days, they will be out on the street. It turns out that Mrs. Pitkin hasn’t paid rent in a while. She didn’t want to worry Lemuel, but now, he feels terrible. He knows there must be something he can do.
Desperate, Lemuel visits a US-president-turned-local-banker Shagpoke Whipple. Lemuel tells Shagpoke about his family troubles and asks for a loan. Shagpoke doesn’t see how Lemuel can pay back the loan, so he denies him the money. He tells Lemuel to leave Vermont behind and make his fortunes elsewhere. New York is a great place to start—that’s where people live out the American Dream.
Lemuel thinks this is a wonderful idea, but nothing goes according to plan. Before he even leaves Vermont, he meets his high school crush, Betty. Betty needs help fighting off vicious men and their dogs. The men beat up Lemuel and steal Betty. It turns out that these men are Italian sex traffickers and they plan to sell Betty to a New York brothel. Lemuel decides to rescue Betty later because, first, he must live the dream.
On the train to New York, Lemuel grabs the attention of a local thief. The thief steals whatever Lemuel has in his pockets and replaces it with a diamond ring. Lemuel plans to sell the ring, but the police catch him with it and charge him with theft. Despite his protests, the police throw Lemuel in jail.
In jail, Lemuel meets Shagpoke. He is also an inmate because he stole money. When Lemuel asks after his mother, he is horrified to discover that she is homeless. Lemuel wants to go home but Shagpoke talks him out of it. Shagpoke pulls some strings for him and Lemuel gets out quickly, but things turn disastrous when Lemuel loses an eye in a street fight with horses.
Lemuel wants to go home, but when he gets there, it has already been sold off to a fancy designer. He wanders the streets of New York, looking for a purpose, but all he finds is Betty in a brothel. He tries to get her out, but the traffickers capture him. They force him to do sex work. He isn’t very good. His new glass eye keeps falling out. When he doesn’t make them any money, the traffickers kick him onto the streets.
The police find Lemuel and charge him with various offenses. Betty escapes the brothel, making her way to the train station, in search of a better life. Lemuel narrowly escapes life imprisonment and heads for the station. It is time to leave New York behind. When he arrives at the station, he runs into Shagpoke, who was released early. They plan to chase gold in California.
Things turn terrible quickly in California. They meet Betty again, but she attracts too much attention. A rogue cowboy rapes her and leads Lemuel into a bear trap. Betty leaves Lemuel behind and Shagpoke takes him to a hospital. He loses his leg, momentarily giving up hope. Shagpoke doesn’t let him despair for long, though, because they haven’t achieved the American Dream yet.
Lemuel decides to use his severed leg to his advantage. He joins a traveling freak show where people pay money to see unusual things. The show is really a guise for a secret communist group, and although Lemuel doesn’t mind, Shagpoke shuts them down. There is nowhere left for Lemuel to go.
After some soul-searching, Lemuel returns to New York. He decides that his story is so wild, he can profit from it. He takes a job as a stand-up comedian. He talks about his strange misfortune and people love him for it. Shagpoke decides that Lemuel should be the mouthpiece for his new political party, the National Revolutionary Party.
Lemuel doesn’t want to politicize his performances, but he agrees to help Shagpoke out. A communist in the crowd spots him and shoots him on sight. He dies instantly. Shagpoke uses his death as a case for better governance under the National Revolutionary Party. Lemuel might be dead, but his memory lives on, even if it is just for a political campaign.