Books: The Great Despiser

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Damned Aspirin. This sort of thing, signed "Sincerely yours, Desperate," nudges Miss Lonelyhearts to the brink of madness. He is helped along the way by his diabolical editor, a man named Shrike. Coached by Shrike, his newspaper colleagues sneer at his pity for his letter writers and for humanity in general. "A leper licker," they call him in Delahanty's speakeasy. Of himself, Miss Lonelyhearts says to the girl who loves him: "As soon as anyone acts viciously, you say he's sick. Wife-torturers, rapers of small children, according to you they're all sick. No morality, only medicine. Well, I'm not sick. I don't need any of your damned aspirin. I've got a Christ complex. Humanity . . . I'm a humanity lover." As Shrike puts it mockingly, Miss Lonely-hearts is "he of the singing heart—a still more swollen Mussolini of the soul."

In terms of his own self-parody, Miss Lonelyhearts enacts a series of dramas with the hallucinatory clarity of an obscene nightmare. In a dream scene, a lamb is clumsily sacrificed. Miss Lonelyhearts makes love to a maudlin monster of a woman whom he does not want—like most of West's characters, he suffers sex like a dreadful, joyless compulsion. The woman has a crippled husband, and so each succeeding scene of the inhuman triangle is frozen in horror, like a movie still, until the last episode, where, after "accepting" God, Miss Lonelyhearts rushes to meet the husband with his arms outspread in brotherhood. In panic at the other's enveloping pity, the husband accidentally shoots him dead.

What West seems to be saying in spite of himself through all his quirky and relentless blasphemy is religious: that if Christ really is the Incarnate God, life is tolerable; but if mercy is merely embodied in the destructive and sentimental pity of a Miss Lonelyhearts, life is a foul joke.

West's voice—an octave higher than most ears—will make its reverberant echoes heard for a long time. His portrait of the U.S. and of mankind is like a great caricature that remains in the mind long after the loved or hated face itself has been blurred in the memory. A hard man is good to find, and such a one was West.

*In a California car crash which also took the life of his wife Eileen McKenney, the original of sister Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen.

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