A Year in Books/Day 230: Lonelyhearts The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

  • Title: Lonelyhearts The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney
  • Author: Marion Meade
  • Year Published: 2010 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Year Purchased: 2013
  • Source: Half Price Books
  • About: He was a commercially neglected writer with celebrity friends. As the inspiration for My Sister Eileen, she was mildly famous for being mildly famous. Although the title makes you think otherwise, Lonelyhearts is more of a joint biography than the tale of a love affair. The chapters weave from his New York childhood to hers in Ohio a decade later, followed by their equally different trajectories as adults: they only came together in the last 14-months of their lives. Oddly, when they finally meet on page 270 (out of a total 321 pages, which includes a postscript) the verve and tang of the rest of the book disappears. What we are left with is two people who may or may not have been good for each other. As the final pages march to the increasingly loud and frantic footfalls of approaching death, one begins to mourn: for Nathanael, for Eileen, for his unwritten works but not, somewhat surprisingly, for the couple or their love. Perhaps this is because, no matter how hard Meade tries to facilitate a balance between her two subjects, the story really belongs to the enigmatic novelist. It is his childhood, his struggles for professional mastery and reward, his demons and fallacies that catch one’s fancy. Eileen McKenney achieved her sliver of immortality through her sister Ruth’s words, first in a series of short stories and a book then, posthumously, in play, radio and film adaptations. Ruth infused Eileen’s alter ego with all of the charisma that is lacking in a straight telling of her life. Although she won the pop culture lottery thanks to the former, she suffers from ordinariness here, in a portrait that one suspects is much closer to the wilting influence of reality. Forget thoughts of screwball antics or a great romance that, with each page and insistent sentence, seems increasingly forced and tepid. It resulted in an impetuous marriage that neither one lived long enough to regret. Instead, do the sensible thing and delight in this book for what it is: a compelling look at a brilliant, talented, strange, fucked-up, lonely man with a disconcerting sense of humour who never received the recognition he so desperately wanted and deserved. Critics and literary history agree that he wrote 2 of the greatest novels of the 20th century. What chance do the rest of us have?
  • Motivation: Nathanael West is disturbingly fascinating. If you’ve ever read Miss Lonelyhearts or The Day of the Locust, you know what I mean. This book went on my must-read list when it was published 3 years ago.
  • Times Read: 1
  • Random Excerpt/Page 79: “For someone who practically teethed on the sweeping narratives of nineteenth-century Russian literature, it was depressing to find himself incapable of writing panoramic scenes or in a linear fashion. Instead, he seemed to compose vertically, as if compressing an onion bulb. Pretty soon layer was tightly stacked upon layer, which meant that anybody interested in reading his story would be obliged to peel the skins away.”
  • Happiness Scale: 7 1/2 (the chapters focusing on West merit a 9)

2 thoughts on “A Year in Books/Day 230: Lonelyhearts The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

    • Thank you, Judy. That is really a huge compliment. Nathanael West’s books are just so completely different. Humorous, disturbing, electric. The Day of the Locust is widely considered to be the best novel ever written about Hollywood.

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