I thought I’d start my New York reading with a classic, and ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ was first up. The thing is, I’d never read anything by Nathaniel West before; I only knew of this book because of it’s position on ‘books you must read’ lists and was completely unprepared for his unforgiving depiction of 1930s angst. ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ is only a short book, but it shows you that Steinbeck could be considered pathetically rose-tinted in his evocation of the Great Depression in America. In fact, I’ve never read a novel from the Northern American States like it, for fictional comparisons you need to go to the Southern Gothic and it reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Wise Blood’, Flannery O’Brian’s demented masterpiece.
The Miss Lonelyhearts in the title is an agony aunt, tormented by his inability to laugh at his job. I’ve read that several of the letters he receives in the novel are genuine agony aunt letters from the period and, with some, I can easily believe it. The problem is that the line between the grotesque fiction and hideous reality is quickly submerged. Several letters are quoted in full in the first chapter, the first ends ‘I am going to have a baby and I dont think I can stand it my kidneys hurt so much. I am so sick and scared because I cant have an abortion on account of being a catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I dont know what to do, Yours respectfully, Sick-of-it-all‘. The last letter in the chapter is about ‘Gracie [who] is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart…Mother makes her play on the roof because we dont want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She told me about it and I dont know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being liable to beat Gracie up…’ In between these two is a letter from a girl who complains ‘I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me out because I was born without a nose – although I am a good dancer…ought I commit suicide? Sincerely yours, Desperate’ These letters may not be about money, but no book has better embodied the Great Depression.
Miss Lonelyhearts is an impotent hero with a soul-crushing cause. Don’t look for a sympathetic everyman though, he isn’t likeable, showing instead how helplessness leads to bullying and madness. He is tortured with guilt when he tries to disengage from the letters that come flooding in and torments others in turn as his self-disgust turns outwards. Alcohol and sex are ineffective distractions, only offering more opportunities for him to loath himself and those around him. This may all sound too bleak to be readable, but West is a writer of rare clarity, his razor-sharp style cutting through the morass of misery. There are rare moments of beauty, like when Miss Lonelyhearts goes though a park gate and we’re told how he ‘swallowed mouthfuls of the heavy shade that curtained its arch’. Other sentences exemplify the hard-boiled prose you’d expect from a newspaper-man protagonist; at one point, sexual promise is stifled when he remembers that ‘in return for an ordinary number of kisses, he would have to listen to an extraordinary amount of complaining.’ The humour is jet black, stripping back the glitz and glamour from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1930s America. It would be inappropriate to say that I liked this book, my feelings were much more complex than this. What I can say is that it’s a book that has changed by perception of historical period I thought I understood. I’m grateful it was short, but I also think it’s masterfully structured and sustained. It is a book that will stick with me, and possibly one against which other evocations of misery will be measured. Not for the faint hearted, but an important New York classic.