Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locustby Nathanael West, Jonathan Lethem (Introduction)
First published in 1933, Miss Lonelyhearts remains one of the most shocking works of 20th century American literature, as unnerving as a glob of black bile vomited up at a church social:
"A primer for Big Bad City disillusionment, unsparing in its portrayal of New York's debilitating entropy."The Village Voice. With a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem.
First published in 1933, Miss Lonelyhearts remains one of the most shocking works of 20th century American literature, as unnerving as a glob of black bile vomited up at a church social: empty, blasphemous, and horrific. Set in New York during the Depression and probably West's most powerful work, Miss Lonelyhearts concerns a nameless man assigned to produce a newspaper advice column but as time passes he begins to break under the endless misery of those who write in, begging him for advice. Unable to find answers, and with his shaky Christianity ridiculed to razor-edged shards by his poisonous editor, he tumbles into alcoholism and a madness fueled by his own spiritual emptiness.
During his years in Hollywood West wrote The Day of the Locust, a study of the fragility of illusion. Many critics consider it with F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished masterpiece The Last Tycoon (1941) among the best novels written about Hollywood. Set in Hollywood during the Depression, the narrator, Tod Hackett, comes to California in the hope of a career as a painter for movie backdrops but soon joins the disenchanted second-rate actors, technicians, laborers and other characters living on the fringes of the movie industry. Tod tries to seduce Faye Greener; she is seventeen. Her protector is an old man named Homer Simpson. Tod finds work on a film called prophetically “The Burning of Los Angeles,” and the dark comic tale ends in an apocalyptic mob riot outside a Hollywood premiere, as the system runs out of control.
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Meet the Author
In 1940, when an automobile accident prematurely claimed Nathanael West's life, he was a relatively obscure writer, the author of only four short novels. West's reputation has grown considerably since then and he is now considered one of the 20th century's major authors. Born in New
York, West worked as the night manager of the Kenmore Hotel on East 23rd
Street in Manhattan, as a contract scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, and as a screenwriter for RKO Radio Picture.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including the bestsellers The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Brooklyn and Maine.
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Nate West is now a recognized author whose work is currently being picked apart in college courses everywhere (as some people who have already read at least one of the two stories will attest), but West died virtually unknown in a carwreck that also claimed the life of his wife as they were rushing home to mourn the death of friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. His body of work, while small, shows him as one of the greatest American authors we've ever come across and these two books are his proudest achievements. So much attention has been given to Locust over the years, and while I don't mean to write off discussion on that, I'd rather give mention to Miss Lonelyhearts, a personal favorite. Miss Lonelyhearts is actually a male newspaper columnist, a la Dear Abbey, whose work is to comfort and console readers whose very existence is so sad and tragic that often a flat, out of the can response is all Lonely can give them. We see Lonelyhearts suffer with personal frustration and professional disinterest as he deals with a cast of characters that are as varied as his readers, and themes of sex and violence, art and culture, religion and politics are offered for speculation but never outwardly dissected. The prose, beautifully written, is a narrative of Lonely's day to day life, interjected with letters from his readers. The ability at how West manages to give each reader in the story such individual context and identity makes you wonder if the letters themselves couldn't be real and authentic. It should also be noted that West was a surrealist (or at least intrigued with the subject) and the displays of surrealism in both stories are some of the best you can find in American literature for that period, or, arguably, so far. Dark and moody, hardboiled. Of particular interest to gay readers for an early to mid 20th century representation of homosexual characters and themes (gender role play anyone?) during a conservative time.