I once asked a poet how she writes poems. Her answer: very, very carefully. For some reason, this response always brings me back to Nathanael West‘s Miss Lonelyhearts. I first heard about this book when Flannery O’Connor mentioned it in her collection of essays, Mysteries and Manners. For a short story writer of her supreme ability and persnickety tastes to say that she admired the quality of someone else’s work, and someone so outside the cannon, certainly did pique my interest.
Nathanael West only wrote three novels, and none of them were all that commercially successful. As many writers did back then, he moved out to Hollywood in the 1930s – this backdrop serving as inspiration for West’s Day of the Locusts, which, in turn, is where Matt Groening got the name for Homer Simpson. West became very good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, West, a notoriously bad driver, died the day after Fitzgerald succumbed to a heart attack, having run a stop sign on the way to attend the funeral.
So valuable do I now consider this work that I used to own three copies of it – one kept in my Florida library, one in New York, and a third copy carried with me at all times, to hand out to whomever seems like they need to read it. It’s the one book I recommend to everybody, not just because it’s my favorite novel, but because it’s also a line-by-line study on how sentences should work. Back when I taught creative writing at NYU, I included the below passage as part of my transition from prose to poetry. Why? Because Miss Lonelyhearts veers very close to poetic perfection, not only in the very, very careful words, but also in the blank white emotion-space that hovers between them.
And so, from Miss Lonelyhearts:
When Miss Lonelyhearts quit work, he found that the weather had turned warm and that the air smelt as though it had been artificially heated. He decided to walk to Delehanty’s speakeasy for a drink. In order to get there, it was necessary to cross a little park.
He entered the park at the North Gate and swallowed mouthfuls of the heavy shade that curtained its arch. He walked into the shadow of a lamp-post that lay on the path like a spear. It pierced him like a spear.
As far as he could discover, there were no signs of spring. The decay that covered the surface of the mottled ground was not the kind in which life generates. Last year, he remembered, May had failed to quicken these soiled fields. It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt.
What the little park needed, even more than he did, was a drink. Neither alcohol nor rain would do. Tomorrow, in his column, he would ask Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Desperate, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest of his correspondents to come here and water the soil with their tears. Flowers would then spring up, flowers that smelled of feet.
“Ah, humanity…” But he was heavy with shadow and the joke went into a dying fall. He tried to break its fall by laughing at himself.