It began two months ago when I watched and did research on the movie Suspicion. It is not a great movie. I would not even call it a good movie. Researching it, I discovered Nathanael West had written the screenplay, but before he delivered the script, the Hitchcock/Reviles, with help, had pieced together a script of their own. I saw that West had also written The Day of the Locust subsequently turned into a film that I admired.
A friend and I were looking at Hitchcocks, first to last, best to worst. If I thought Suspicion was among the least of these, Rear Window was among the best. Here a tribute to West appeared in the character of disappointed Miss Lonelyhearts. Then a favorable mention of West’s novel of the same title popped into the correspondence of Flannery O’Connor. Then another.
Nathanael West was born Nathan Weinstein in New York after the dawn of the Twentieth Century. An indifferent student, he dropped out of high school but used a forged transcript to enter Tufts University. Expelled from Tufts, he borrowed a cousin’s transcript, another Nathan Weinstein, to enroll at Brown. There, while others went to class, Nathan read French Surrealists and Irish mystic poets. His reading and writing resulted in a novel by 1931 and a second, Miss Lonelyhearts, by 1933. In 1939, he moved to Hollywood as a screenwriter. The move yielded his other notable novel, The Day of the Locust.
He changed his name during his short career, flirted with Christianity, and became a fallen-away socialist. His life ended in the last days of 1940 when returning from a hunting trip with his wife. He ran a red light. Both were killed. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, NY.
If you know the ethos (and pathos and logos) of Flannery O’Connor, you might not expect any intersection of her arc with West’s beyond shared humanity played out over lives too-short; after even a cursory look at Miss Lonelyhearts, you might reconsider.
At the center of O’Connor’s work is the acceptance, more often the rejection, of second chances (unearned grace, if you prefer her context). The great failings in her characters spring from beliefs that they are preeminent by birth, education, or station. These characters substitute status, often a status unrecognizable to any but the character him or herself—no plan or purpose for living anchors these soulless moderns. West’s character Lonelyhearts is another of these.
“Freaks” scatter among O’Connor’s modern morality plays. Unsuccessful freaks include but are not limited to amputees Hulga in “Good Country People” and Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and psychopaths like the Misfit of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The hermaphrodite in her story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is one who accepts painful and unavoidable fate and defiantly insists on his and her humanity. West’s protagonist Miss Lonelyhearts is also a hermaphrodite of a sort. He is a man in the guise of a woman, a man whose masculine name remains unknown, who pens an advice column under her pseudonym. In The Day of the Locust, one West “grotesque” (to use Sherwood Anderson’s term) is a tormented soul with gigantic hands driven to murder a child movie star.
Lonelyhearts is aware that salvation awaits him in the stack of letters begging for advice. Personally dissolute, he seduces ineptly, drinks to excess, and misuses his influence over those who ask his help. Throughout this, he explicitly cries out for salvation, saying, “Christ was the answer, but, if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business.” In Lonelyhearts’ world of Post-Modernists and psychoanalysts, salvation is a pathology. His editor, Shrike, who he attempts to cuckold, mocks Lonelyhearts’ struggle for salvation.
The O’Connor canon leaves us with violent deaths, directly or indirectly resulting from collisions with grace. In a few cases, her protagonist probably accepted salvation. In most cases, however, there is no outward sign that the epiphany took hold. In West, there are also violent ends. As Miss Lonelyhearts ends, the hero/ine sincerely ministers to the disabled grotesque he victimized. “I accept. I accept,” says Lonelyhearts. The gun goes off.