My friend and I were walking around our favorite used book store recently on the hunt for new reads. After nearly exhausting our afternoon, a copy of Nathanael West’s short novellas was placed on top of my already wobbly stack of books. Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust were two favorites from her younger years, and serious “must-reads”. New Directions vibrant pink and blue typewriter inspired covers interested me enough to open the book first thing when I got home.
Miss Lonelyhearts is set in New York City during the worst of the Great Depression. Miss Lonelyhearts, a male newspaper columnist, answers the most desperate pleas from the city’s inhabitants. Originally started as a prank by his decadent bon-vivant of an editor, Shrike, the despondent letters begin to take their toll on Miss Lonelyhearts.
The burden of answering his readers everyday creates a Christ complex in Miss Lonelyhearts. He feels that if he cannot assist those who seek his help, he is useless. He tries his best to escape with his estranged fiancee Betty to upstate New York. But the countryside excursion is to no avail. The sacrificing worker is obligated to his job.
Returning to the city, Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself in a sexual affair with one of his longtime subscribers, Fay Doyle. After a letter from the “admirer” contains an address, Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself at the dorrstep of buxom Mrs. Doyle.
In an effort to escape from her married life with a crippled man, the lady searches for love with the man she trust for answers. With the hope that by sacrificing his body will the Christ complex will be cured, Miss Lonelyhearts concedes to the proposition.
But the scarfice is much more than Miss Lonelyhearts can ask for when Mr. Doyle becomes privy to the affair.
In first section of West’s novellas, he crafts the cold streets and speakeasies of New York during the Great Depression with acute accuracy. If Henry Miller relishes the city’s linted underbelly of this time, West exposes the much gruesomer backside through desolation and depression. The Queens born writer makes no illusion in displaying that not only has the city changed, but so has faith:
“They found Shrike in Delehanty’s and joined him at the bar. Goldsmith tried to whisper something to him about Miss Lonelyhearts’ condition, but he was drunk and refused to listen. He caught only part of what Goldsmith was trying to say.
‘I must differ with you, my good Goldsmith,’ Shrike said. ‘Don’t call sick those who have faith. They are the well. It is you who are sick.’
Goldsmith did no reply and Shrike turned to Miss Lonelyhearts. ‘Come, tell us, brother, how it was that you first came to believe. Was it music in a church, or the death of a loved one, or, mayhap, some wise old priest?‘
The familiar jokes no longed had any effect on Miss Lonelyhearts. He smiled at Shrike as the saints are supposed to have smiled at those about to martyr them.
‘Ah, but how stupid of me,” Shrike continued. “It was the letters, of course. Did I myself not say that the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priest of the twentieth-century America?’
Despite our distance to Miss Lonelyheart’s actual character , we find ourselves living vicariously through his reader’s desperate pleas for help. West cleverly includes Dear Abby letters in an effort to divulge his character’s pain. (Or possibly to develop a Christ complex of our own.) As we can see in this letter from Peter Doyle, the impoverished masses, regardless of their true beliefs, are willing to talk to anyone, as long as they get an answer:
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,
I am kind of ashamed to write you because a man like me dont take stock in things like that but my wife told me you were a man and not some dopey woman so I thought I would write to you after reading your answer to Dillusioned. I am a cripple 41 yrs of age which I have been all my life and I have never let myself get blue until lately when I have been feeling lousy all the time on acount of not geting anywhere and asking myself what is it all for. You have a education so I figured may be you no. What I want to no is why I go around pulling my leg up and down stairs reading meters for the gas company for a stinking $22.50 per while the bosses ride around in swell cars living off the fat of the land. Dont think I am a greasy red. I read where they shoot cripples in Russia because they cant work but I can work better than any park bum and support a wife and child to. But thats not what I am writing you about. What I want to no is what is it all for my pulling my god damned leg along the streets and down in stinking cellars with it al the time hurting fit to burst s that near quitting time I am crazy with pain and where I get home all I hear is money which aint no home for a man like me. What I want to no is what in hell is the use day after day with a foot like mine when you have to go around pulling and scrambling for a lousy three squares with a toothache in it that comes from using the foot so much . The doctor told me I ought to rest it for six months but who will pay me when I am resting it. But that aint what I mean either because you might tell me to change my job and where I could get another I am lucky to have one at all. It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.
Please write me an answer not in the paper because my wife reads your stuff and I dont want her to no I wrote you because I always said that papers is crap but I figured maybe you no something about because you have read a lot of books and I never finished high.
At the end of Miss Lonelyhearts, we realize West’s snapshot of reality with sardonic irony. Published in 1933, the harshness in which we and the title character are put through come full circle in the exciting, yet typical of the time finale. West’s dilapated portrait of his hometown would influence the author’s Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust.
As we all know, making it in Hollywood is not easy. But to illustrator Tod Hackett, adversity is only fuel to the fire. Having recently moved into one of the shabby neighborhoods of the starlet city, Tod becomes acquainted with Hollywood stereotypes.
Intrigued by a beautiful, but bizarre amateur actress named Fay Greeener, the illustrator is determined to be with her. Though like all the other beautiful young women in Hollywood, he has to get in line. After a few dates, Fay admits to Todd she only sees him as a friend. But as we know, vices only help Tod. In an effort to stay close, the illustrator decides to become close to Fay’s sickly, but vaudevillianly vibrant father, Harry Greener.
Annoyed, but amused by Tod’s tactics, Faye begins to surround herself by new suitors. In particularly Homer Simpson and Earle Shoop. Homer, a naive hotel attendent from the Midwest, falls in love with Faye after she is forced to rescue an ill Harry from his home. Earle, a drugstore cowboy, represents everything Homer is not. Unlike his meek and nervous competition, this new beau fulfills Faye’s sexual desires, but not her financial ones. After her father’s sudden death, Fay decides it best to move into Homer’s house….with Earle, his Mexican friend Miguel, and their chicken coop.
Meanwhile, Tod has been promoted to do the story art for a television series about Napolean’s battle at Waterloo. The move up in the business allows him to see Hollywood’s high-class decadents at their most candid. Befriending a pornography obsessed producer, Tod promises to show his new friend a real live cockfight courtesy of Earle and Miguel at Homer Simpson’s house.
As the two cocks fight to the death, the battle begins to mirror the frenzied and cutthroat Los Angeles characters that surround them.
Known as West’s most celebrated work, Day of the Locust is the reward for the reader after Miss Lonelyhearts. The maturity and bawdy elegance in the latter work is more digestible and less hardboiled – yet just as biting. Having worked in Hollywood, the author introduces us to his world on the West Coast in the same vein as Isherwood’s Berlin:
“Around quitting time, Tod Hackett heard a great din on the road outside his office. The groan of leather mingled with the jangle of iron and over all beat the tattoo of a thousand hooves. He hurried to the window.
An army of cavalry and foot was passing. It moved like a mob, its line broken, as though fleeing from some terible defeat. The dolmans of the hussars, the heavy shakos of the guards, Hanoverian light horse, with their flat leather caps and flow red plumes, were all jumbled together in bobbing disorder. Behind the cavalry came the infantry, a wild sea of waving sabretaches, sloped muskets, crossed shoulder belts and swinging cartridge boxes. Tod recognized the scarlet infantry of England with their white shoulder pads, the black infantry of the Duke of Brunswick, the French grenadiers with their enormous white gaiters, the Scotch with bare knees under plaid skirts.”
As the suffocating hysteria closes Day of the Locust, we see the parallels between literature and reality. Published in 1939, West exposes the world in disastourous flux. With Hitler and Mussolini’s crowds filling European streets, the author portrays Hollywood’s obsession with starlets in a sickly similar manner. West biographer Joe Woodward sums it up quite nicely in his essay ‘Nathanael West Slept Here‘:
“Hollywood was a relatively happy place that summer, too, even if much of America and Europe was not. At that moment, the finest constellation of movie moguls ever to rule a back lot ran their studios with optimism and bravado, men like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn. Together they pumped out celluloid candies and made money doing it; Greta Garbo’s first comedy Ninotchka, opened in 1939, surprising fans and critics alike and earning her fourth and final Academy Award nomination. Katherine Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress for her 1940 comedic classic The Philadelphia Story, an unusual but beautifully timed gift from a lovesick Howard Hughes. These halcyon days held some of the best work and biggest box-office for our grandest movie stars: Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Vivian Leigh, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracey, and others. And yet, all the while, in the span of these months between 1939 and 1940, the political situation in Europe grew grim and bloodier. While premiere lights spun frantically in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, trumpeting each new and grand entertainment, Hitler invaded Poland, the USSR joined Nazi Germany in official friendship, and Mussolini.”
After this excessively long post, I wonder why it took me so long to finally get my thoughts on Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust down to paper. Finishing the two short reads over a month ago, I can only conclude that it took the 30 plus days to fully digest the satire and beauty of West’s prose. Tragically, West would be killed in an automobile accident outside of Hollywood near his home in 1940. Dying only a day after his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald passed away from a massive heart attack.
While they may be dark and usually uncomfortable, I’m glad to have Lonelyhearts and Locust on my library shelf.