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Saturday, July 24th, 2004


Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust

by Nathanael West

A review by Jill Owens

"It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous."
—The Day of the Locust

These two works by Nathanael West (who had his name legally changed to "West," after Horace Greeley's famous line "Go west, young man") include some of the most desperate, empty character portraits I've ever read — struggling actors and backdrop painters in L.A., readers with failed love lives writing to the advice columnist in their local paper. The remarkable thing is that these books are also bleakly funny; West treats his subjects with an unusual combination of satire and sympathy, humor and despair.

Miss Lonelyhearts is the (male) advice columnist for the local paper. He's a brilliant character, a kind of Christ figure destroyed by his own attempt at humility, yet disgusted with all he surveys. His job was originally a kind of joke, an attempt to advance in the newspaper business under his friend and editor, Shrike. But to his great distress, the letters — the pathetic, misspelled, horrifying, and amusing heartaches of the city — strike a chord in him, laying bare for him the enormity and banality of human suffering. He tries several avenues of escape: art (very briefly), sex, the country (in a kind of parody of a simple life), and ultimately religion. West plays with (and skewers) every possibility; several diatribes, mostly by Miss Lonelyhearts' demonic friend Shrike, summarily examine and dismiss each possibility for redemption. West's language is excellent, funny, and exact; his ear for dialogue is perfect. In many ways West's voice is comparable to Salinger's, particularly in Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey; West's dead-on depiction of the unsuccessful search for meaning prefigures Salinger's satire (with somewhat less hope). The running undercurrent of violence culminates in the last scene, which closes with one of the most perfect last sentences I have read in a novel.

The Day of the Locust is generally considered the better work (perhaps in part because West had more room in which to work, as Miss Lonelyhearts is only fifty-eight pages long). It is an unrelenting portrait of those on the edges of Hollywood, the scene technicians and failing actresses, the motel rooms, boredom, and heat. Cock fights and prostitution intersperse with funerals, as several men (one of which is named Homer Simpson — I've always wondered if Groening read this book) fight for a chance to sleep with Faye Greener, a vacant 17-year-old whose father is an aging vaudevillian. West depicts the poverty of Hollywood, both economic and spiritual, in grimy detail; again, the final scene culminates with a mass expression of the resentment that permeates the everyday lives of the characters who have come to California for their fortunes: "Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment....The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies....They have slaved and saved for nothing."

Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust sold poorly in West's lifetime, although they were critically praised; the New Yorker reported, "Taken together, these two novels say more about the way we live now — and the things that brought us to our present pass — than any other work of fiction I can think of." Despite, perhaps, his focus on desperation, West is a joy to read; subtle and quick, he is never heavy-handed, and his more thoughtful characters contain original (though often futile) insight into the nature of malaise. Influential, relevant, and disturbing, these novels remain an arresting and thought-provoking read.

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