Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust is actually two separate stories (Miss Lonelyhearts and, you guessed it, The Day of the Locust), but has long been sold as one book and was assigned to me this month as one. Given that Miss Lonelyhearts is only around 50 pages long, I went with it. This was actually my second re-reading assignment of this month, and it was as dark and depressing as I had remembered.
Both stories are ultimately about one thing, how difficult it is to get to real love and how many awful things we accept as a substitute. Here's a line from Day of the Locust; If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her. "He" is Tod Hackett, the "hero" of our story. The "her" being referenced is the object of his affection. The rape isn't something Tod actually fantasizes about, so much as the only way Tod can imagine asserting himself or being with her. Tod is a mess. And he's not the only one. Tod inhabits 30's era Hollywood, and the characters he's surrounded with are characters indeed; vividly drawn grotesques searching out any abnormality in their lust for excitement.
Miss Lonelyhearts is deceptively lighter in tone; the main character is a man writing as "Miss Lonelyhearts" for a newspaper column. The premise allows for some comic moments, but the story is, ultimately, just as depressing as Locust. Miss Lonelyhearts (we're never given his name) is privy to the saddest kind of suffering and cannot help but be drawn into it. What begins as a joke becomes something equal parts lonesome and loathsome.
Both stories are terrific. West's writing is brilliant and bold; The Day of the Locust even turns up on The Modern Library's top 100 novels of the 20th century. But these stories are not fun. They end perfectly, but they don't end well.
*sidenote: West and his wife both died in a car accident, after running a stop sign, in a hurry to get to friend F. Scott Fitzgerald's funeral. So, his life is as dark and depressing as his writing.