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    Let's start from the beginning.  A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper.  The
    job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke.  He welcomes the job, for it might
    lead to a gossip column, and anyway he's tired of being a leg man.  He too considers the job a joke,
    but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him.  He sees that the majority of the letters
    are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of
    genuine suffering.  He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously.  For the first time
    in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives.  This examination shows him that
    he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.
                        -Nathanael West (Miss Lonelyhearts)

Miss Lonelyhearts has been hired as a wiseacre stunt, to dispense snide advice to yokels. But in the face of their pain and their need for answers, the empty piffle that he serves up begins to eat away at his soul.  The whole thing is supposed to be an elaborate put on, so his editor won't let him give the real answers that he longs to share, that Christ and the word of God are the only solutions to their problems.  The result: "By avoiding God, he had failed to tap the force in his heart and had merely written a column for his paper."  Lonelyhearts, plagued by his failure to help his correspondents, retreats into dreams before almost inevitably enacting a kind of messianic tragedy, ending in the obligatory crucifix scene.

Nathanael West here addresses the central dilemma facing modern man; having abandoned God, where do people turn for answers?  What values, what morals, remain to provide structure for men's lives?  West is unambiguous in answering these questions.  He makes it clear that there is nothing that can fill these vital roles.  The compelling image here is of modern men and women as a series of completely isolated lonely hearts, unable to share in the love of God, and, therefore, unable to love one another.

This is a brief but savage attack on the emptiness of modern life.  It seems to me a much better novel than Day of the Locust (see review) which, of course, made the Modern Library Top 100; the themes are more universal and the message retains its power.  It is as timely today, as it was when it was published over 60 years ago.  If West has a masterpiece, I remain ambivalent on this point, this is it.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Nathanael West (2 books reviewed)
General Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -Nathanael West (1903-1940)
    -ESSAY: Let This Be a Lesson to You: The Snakebit Life of Nathanael West (Gerald Howard, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: A Wasteland of Contradictions:  The California Dreams of Nathanael West (Jim Tejani, Literary Traveler)
    -REVIEW: of NATHANAEL WEST: NOVELS AND OTHER WRITINGS True West: During the 1930s, a master of the short novel hallucinated a grotesque, erotic America we can recognize as our own (Virginia Heffernan)
    -F.W. Dupee: Doing West REVIEW: of Nathanael West: The Art of His Life by Jay Martin (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings edited by Sacvan Bercovitch (Martin Filler, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Novels and Other Writings by Nathaneal West (Algis Valiunas, Commentary)