Despite what the cover would lead you to believe, Balso Snell is the first story told in this book. I'm not even sure Balso can be called a novel. It's only sixty pages long, and doesn't develop a thematic unity so much as it raises questions in a particular line of thought. I don't even know if that makes sense, but there seems to be a distinction to me. This story seems to be part Divine Comedy, part social commentary, and part ars poetica.
The story starts with Balso Snell, a poet (like Virgil, thus the Dante allusion) climbing into the Trojan Horse's rectum. While in the horse he encounters a series of storytellers (here's the arse--sorry, ars poetica) who tell him their tales while he tries to escape. The stories touch on inequality and injustice, as well as artistic pretension (hello, social commentary), and in the end the reader can't be sure what is real and what is dream.
This story bends convention to the point of breaking. It isn't as well developed as West's later work, but I can see him working a form to death, and making it his own. I enjoyed the hell out of this story.
A Cool Million is billed as a satirical Horatio Alger story. Having never read a Horatio Alger story, I'll have to take the cover at its word, but Million does lampoon enough of American society I can see what they're getting at. The alternate title to this story is The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, and I'll tell you, West takes this literally. By the end of the story, Lem isn't half the man he was in the beginning.
To be honest, Million got a little tedious, and the "mock heroic style" grated at times, but I was gratified to find a similar social conscience to mine in this writer I have come to admire. The scary thing is that West wrote all four of his novels before he was 37 years old. Guess what I'll be next year.
Kind of depressing.
The bottom line is that if you like West, you should read this. If you like unusual literature, you might like this. If you're a fan of conventional narrative and warm'n'fuzzy, don't bother.