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Funny as a Crutch

…I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much. My husband thinks no woman can be a good catholic and not have children irregardless of the pain…. I have 7 children in 12 yrs and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. I was operated on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice…. I am going to have a baby…. I am so sick and scared…. I cant have an abortion on account of being a catholic….

Another letter:

I am writing to you for my little sister Gracie because something awfull hapened to her…. Gracie is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart on account of being deaf and dumb…. 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…. I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby…. If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awfull…when she tore her dress they locked her in the closet for 2 days…. So please what would you do if the same happened in your family.

Miss Lonelyhearts, he is given no other name, looks like the son of a Baptist minister although he is a “New England puritan” and something of a Christer. Shrike, an editor at the paper, is a voluble, cynical, barroom orator at the speakeasy, Delehanty’s, where the newsmen gather. As Miss Lonelyhearts begins to find the letters neither funny nor stupid, he thinks he should tell the forlorn and miserable to find comfort in Christ. Shrike thinks otherwise:

Miss Lonelyhearts, my friend, I advise you to give your readers stones. When they ask for bread don’t give them crackers as does the Church, and don’t, like the State, tell them to eat cake. Explain that man cannot live by bread alone and give them stones. Teach them to pray each morning: “Give us this day our daily stone.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is not so much complex as complicated. As an educated young man from New England, successful in New York, he is nevertheless carrying a lot of baggage from home: his Christian roots, a certain provincial suspiciousness. In search of experience, he visits Betty, a cheerful, willing girl. Instead of seducing her, he rants about Christ and suffering humanity. As he goes on, Betty will say: “What’s the matter?… Are you sick?” Her final words are: “I felt swell before you came, and now I feel lousy. Go away. Please go away.”

Next, he visits Shrike and his wife, Mary. She wants to go out and Miss Lonelyhearts takes her to a place called El Gaucho. Mary’s theme song, as it were, is: My mother died of breast cancer. She died leaning over a table. Back at the front door of her apartment, he tears at her clothes until she is naked under her fur coat. Unfortunately, the door opens and Shrike is in the corridor. “He had on only the top of his pajamas.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is hopeless as a lover, and the scenes of seduction are always unappetizing, comic perhaps, but withering. West’s talent speeds everything along with a felicitous assurance that is devastating to romance. The hope of appropriate feeling is as futile as the hope for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. His ear for the language, his gift for the landscape of foolishness and deceit are so offhand and accurate they do not alienate. In life, there was that vexatious, crummy family next door and yet you would be alarmed if they weren’t all there on the front porch the next day. West is spoken of as “pessimistic” and perhaps he is. On the other hand, he doesn’t bring to mind attitudes or preconceptions about life. He is wild, imaginative, and for all the mishaps in his pages and the comic drive, he is a reporter covering a fire and then going out for a beer.

At Delehanty’s, Miss Lonelyhearts will meet his final correspondent—Peter Doyle, a cripple whose job is reading meters for the gas company. It turns out Doyle has written Miss Lonelyhearts a letter, unmailed, but now taken out of his pocket. The letter wants to know what it’s all about. Going up and down stairs for $2.50 per. Doctors have told him to rest his leg. He’s always in pain. “It aint the job that I am complaining about but what I want to no is what is the whole stinking business for.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel of defiant originality. West introduces suffering characters and scarcely a one arouses sympathy. They are liars, clumsily crafty, their pose of weakness self-serving. Miss Lonelyhearts goes about his sexual seductions in a cold, unfeeling manner; and, with it all, he is obsessed with Christ. W.H. Auden, in an essay entitled “West’s Disease,” reprinted in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, is deeply offended by the novel, experiencing a sort of pedantic frisson. First: self-help newspaper columns are written by people who “give the best advice they can.” Miss Lonelyhearts, with the ivory Christ hanging in his room, is not the sort to apply for a gossip column and if he did, no “editor would hire him.” Shrike is a

Mephisto who spends all his time exposing to his employees the meaninglessness of journalism…. Such a man, surely, would not be a Feature Editor long…. A high percentage of the inhabitants are cripples, and the only kind of personal relation is the sado-masochistic.

And: West is not a satirist.

Satire presupposes conscience and reason as the judges between the true and the false, the moral and immoral, to which it appeals, but for West these faculties are themselves the creators of unreality…. West’s descriptions of Inferno have the authenticity of firsthand experience: he has certainly been there, and the reader has the uncomfortable feeling that his was not a short visit.

Auden, who cannot have read many advice columns, was publicly known as a communicant of the Episcopal Church, a return in his celebrated genius to the church of his English boyhood. The “religiosity” of Miss Lonelyhearts appears to have been an annoyance to him. West, an American Jew, was amused by the Methodists and Baptists who may have been liars and cheats while rooted in their down-home Christianity. He is amazed, amused, and thoughtful about them in a way that was too atheistic, skeptical, and “modern” for Auden. The novel is a triumph of local observation by a keen eye and ear and a rhythmical style. There is nothing quite like it in our literature.

3.

John D. Rockefeller would give a cool million to have a stomach like yours.”

—Old Saying

Thus the heading of West’s third novel, A Cool Million. It is often read as a satire on the popular Horatio Alger books. Horatio, on his way to make his fortune in the world and save the old homestead, is cheated, mocked, preyed upon, but rises in his youthful American rectitude and perseverance to outwit his persecutors, good boy that he is. West’s hero is persecuted, robbed, lied to, and hideously mutilated from head to foot. His passage through life is indeed painful to read. Scarcely a comedy, if that was the intent, in scene after scene of “dismantmantling.” The novel begins with a masterly tonal memory of the sentimental fiction of the period:

The home of Mrs. Sarah Pitkin, a widow well on in years, was situated on an eminence overlooking the Rat River, near the town of Ottsville in the state of Vermont. It was a humble dwelling much the worse for wear, yet exceedingly dear to her and to her only child, Lemuel. While the house had not been painted for some time…it still had a great deal of charm. An antique collector, had one chanced to pass by, would have been greatly interested in its architecture.

The tale goes along in the rocky way of West’s imagination: Mrs. Pitkin, behind in her mortgage payments of 12 percent interest, is threatened with foreclosure. This came about by way of Asa Goldstein, proprietor of Colonial Exteriors and Interiors, “who planned to take the house apart and set it up again in the window of his Fifth Avenue shop.” Lem goes to see “Shagpoke” Whipple, once president of the United States and now president of the Rat River National Bank. Lem is advised to go out in the world and make money. On the train he is robbed by well-dressed gentlemen, one of whom will accidentally drop a diamond ring in his pocket, causing the bumpkin to be arrested and sent to prison. Once he is free again, Chicago, socialist, anarchist, and fascist groups of the period appear as part of the crowded background. Along the way, if so it is to be expressed, Lem will lose his left hand, a leg is cut off at the knee, an eye removed in prison for fear it might become infected.

Betty, wandering in from the previous novel, is kidnapped by Italians and sold to a Chinaman who runs a whorehouse with girls of all nations, each set up in suites suitable for their native countries. Betty’s rooms are American colonial with ships in bottles, carved whalebone, and hooked rugs. Betty’s first client is a “pockmarked Armenian rug merchant from Malta.” And Lem, bereft of teeth, thumb, leg, scalp, and one eye, is shot through the heart. But in the spirit of Horatio Alger, the final line is: “All hail, the American Boy!”

A wasteful brilliance perhaps, a treacherous revision of classical comedies in which the clown is knocked about, stamped on, but gets up, tips his hat, and walks off the stage, A Cool Million was written in 1933 and published in 1934. It can be read as a Depression novel, set in the time when men on the bread lines were “stripped” of their worldly goods. West took “stripping” with a devastating literalness. The novel did not do well—too many chopped-off body parts for bedside reading. Yet it is an achievement, written in a prose of glittering, unexpected adjectives before the required noun.

Hollywood: The Day of the Locust. In West’s fiction there is landscape, but not of trees, grassy plains, sunsets on the horizon. His landscape is houses, rooms, bars, and their contents. West is like a decorator with a pad—chintz here, solid color there; no, perhaps a bit of tweed. His narrator, Tod Hackett, graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, is brought to Hollywood to learn set and costume designing. His story begins with the streets of the peculiar city:

An army of cavalry and foot was passing. It moved like a mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing from some terrible defeat…. 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…. But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses…Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages…. On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights…. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

There are no screen stars in this Hollywood novel, but the city and the movies inhabit these settlers, as if they were left from the wagon trains that pulled Americans west. The characters are the story just by being who they are, most of them living in the shabby apartment house with Tod—the San Bernardino Arms, known as the San Berdoo.

Faye Greener, the heroine of the novel, when the term means the center of attention. Faye is a bad girl in the sense of small-town gossips; that is, one who “puts out.” She is beautiful, “shiny as a new spoon,” only seventeen, but as experienced as Moll Flanders. In movietown her credits are meager: an extra in a two-reel farce, but she’s hoping for a break. She sings in her pretty voice, “Jeepers Creepers! Where’d you get those peepers?” When drunk, “Dreamed about a reefer five feet long.” Tod pursues her, but when he tries to seduce her, she says she doesn’t want to be messed up. In addition, she can’t see that Tod could further her career.

Faye is, somewhat unaccountably, hooked up with a fellow named Homer Simpson, suggesting “simpleton,” perhaps. Homer, hotel booking clerk, now retired and living in a house across the street from the Berdoo. He is from the Middle West, from a little town near Des Moines, Iowa: a hick, in Faye’s accurate naming, but one who buys her things, takes her to the movies, and is incapable of sex, a convenience, along with his nerdy love of her. “But whether he was happy or not is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither.” Homer, after an illness, is told to get some sunshine and so it’s off to California and Hollywood. Homer doesn’t belong in Hollywood. Old as he is, he’s like a child left in a gas station toilet while the parents, thinking him in the back seat, drive away. He’s a stumbling, vivid creation, genuine as a nickel.

Harry Greener, Faye’s father, once in vaudeville, now selling door-to-door Miracle solvent, a furniture polish of his own devising. But Harry is now sick, dying, his death you might call an opportunity for a funeral scene. In his “box,” he’s “wearing a Tuxedo …his eyebrows shaped and plucked and his lips and cheeks rouged. He looked like the interlocutor in a minstrel show.” Faye, looking beautiful in her black dress, “platinum” hair under a black straw sailor. “Every so often, she carried a tiny lace handkerchief to her eyes and made it flutter there for a moment.” Residents of the Berdoo are in attendance and the Gingo family (too?), Eskimos brought to Hollywood for a picture about polar exploration. Unfortunately, an electric organ plays a record of Bach’s chorale, “Come Redeemer, Our Saviour.” That doesn’t go down well with the assembled mourners. There is an invitation to review the remains, not very beckoning except to the Gingos.

Earle Shoop: cowboy from Arizona, occasionally worked in horse operas. Six feet tall, Stetson hat, boots with three-inch heels, always broke, he stages an appalling, murderous cock fight. In the end, Earle and Faye go off to the sunset or to the trailer park.

The final chapter of The Day of the Locust is a painful, dazzling scene of the mob outside a theater, waiting for the celebrities to arrive for the première of an important film. West steps aside for an intrusion of his general thoughts about Americans, some of them, at least:

They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment. All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs…. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?… They get tired of oranges…. They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all…. [Newspapers and movies] fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars…. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates…. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

Tod Hackett, the Yale man, is caught in the mob, his leg painfully injured. He, foolish aesthete from New England, is standing on a rail, trying to sketch the scene for a painting to be called “The Burning of Los Angeles.” What is burning is “a corinthian column that held up a palmleaf roof of a nutburger stand.” The Day of the Locust was published in an edition of 3,000 copies. 1,464 copies sold. That’s the story for a masterpiece.

Nathanael West’s stunning four novels are American tales, rooted in our transmogrifying soil. Morality plays they are, classified as comedies. They are indeed often funny. Funny as a crutch.

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