Marion Meade's Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney.

Reading between the lines.
May 13 2010 6:41 AM

Nathanael West's Secret

He knew there was something worse than selling out.

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This last endeavor was a matter of business, not ambition. Compared with the Daily Worker or the New Masses, publications Ruth admired, Harold Ross' 11-year-old humor magazine read like a weekly paean to patrician ennui and metropolitan consumption. Katharine S. White, her editor, led her from the hard-nosed, engagé reporting she considered her vocation toward the light, lucid, and artful casuals the magazine perfected. It was a 180-degree change from Ruth's native sensibility, one she resented—but, unlike West, she sublimated her taste to the glossy sensibility of the market and hung on as she could. The New Yorker brought her what a labor rag would not: money and—as her "Sister Eileen" stories caught on—success. The pieces became best-selling books, a Broadway blockbuster, and, years after Eileen's death, Wonderful Town.

Meade reminds her readers frequently that West "didn't want to be like anybody else" and was "ahead of his time"—in other words, a literary iconoclast. But she's vague on what, exactly, that iconoclasm was. Like Fitzgerald, West was keen to give the lie to the American dream. Unlike Fitzgerald, though, he seldom featured characters sitting pretty on the mountain. Miss Lonelyhearts, which had a strong critical response but poor sales, is the story of an unnamed writer who bangs out an advice column in lieu of the loftier society journalism he wants to do—and then finds himself unable to go on, obsessed with his near-religious role in solving strangers' problems. The more he reaches out, the more ill-fated he becomes, until he dies, tragicomically, by the weapon of somebody whom he tried to help.

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Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel about something worse than selling out: The columnist loses his compass because he starts to confuse commercial hack work with a real, high-stakes vocation; the job he once found asinine becomes his crucial measure of fulfillment. This is the dirty secret of the American dream—that fulfillment requires a kind of compromise and self-delusion—and West reported it unflinchingly. Few writers, then or since, would dare to suggest, as he did in The Day of the Locust, that Los Angeles was filled with a mix of social performers and the kind of young person "who comes to California to die."

West and McKenney themselves became those people. Following the disappointing release of his third novel, West headed to the Coast, trading hopes of a literary market coup for a chance to hone his art while living well on studio paychecks. He met Eileen McKenney at a 1939 party in L.A., where she'd come to escape from her high-life success. They married—and died—within months. Speeding back from a hunting trip with his new wife less than a year later, West ran a boulevard stop and crashed into a Pontiac. His death was overshadowed by Fitzgerald's fatal heart attack the day before. By that point, though, West would hardly have cared: Having abandoned the commercial aspect of his literary ambitions to focus on the art, he came, eventually, to lose faith even in that pursuit.

That loss of faith is a theme of West's masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939). The novel is based on a triangle: An aspiring artist (Tod), an aspiring celebrity (Faye), and a Midwestern rube (Homer Simpson—no relation) chase their long-term ambitions amid a wilting social scene and teeming creative market. West was a master poet of desire, and his portraits of lust and pathos flickering through a three-way conversation—as Homer and Tod pine for Faye, who's in turn pining for a glamorous beau and klieg lights—are achingly vivid even today. The novel's trick is to depict this desire at every scale, from fleeting concupiscence to life ambition, and to show characters fleeing from one scale to another as they fall short of their goals. The book ends with Tod's vision of his unpainted masterpiece merging surreally with a real street mob in L.A., the imagined art ennobling the chaos as Tod himself is borne off, broken and deluded, in a cop car.

Art is redemptive, West suggests, but it does not redeem its creator. This is a deeply unsettling idea, whether one's standard of success is the young Fitzgerald or the aged Joyce. For West, Locust's portrait of the artist as a self-deceiving loser was a final blow against a culture that pushed some writers to commercial success while idealizing pure art born of worldly compromise for others. He'd tried each role, the market pleaser and the unsung artist attempting to stay afloat through hack work. By the time he died, he'd pulled away from both, and from fiction itself, deferring work on a fifth novel to write scripts for more cash than he had use for—the ultimate refusal of artistic self-delusion. Meade calls West's circle a "screwball world." But the author's real preoccupations, in his life and writing, were the terrors of becoming a creative artist in America.

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