Tuesday March 23rd, 2010

Lonelyhearts by Marion Meade

lonelyhearts-cover-artWhen they were killed together in a car accident in December 1940, Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney had been married for eight months. West’s novels, The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts would bring him great posthumous fame, but at the time McKenney was the more renowned half of the couple. Her sister Ruth had written stories for The New Yorker that detailed her and Eileen’s adventures living together in Greenwich Village. Marion Meade’s dual biography has to overcome the couple’s brief time together (West and McKenney don’t meet until page 270 of 314) and some of West’s less sympathetic characteristics. In the Wall Street Journal, Molly Haskell says, “It’s a mark of the man’s peculiar charm, and of Ms. Meade’s dispassionate perspective, that we come to love West’s eccentricities and forgive his unattractive qualities.”

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner is interested in the tale but defeated by Meade’s telling. “The first thing worth saying about Lonelyhearts,” he writes, “is that it tells two quite interesting parallel stories, each packed with piquant details. . . . The bad news about Lonelyhearts is that Ms. Meade’s own unsubtle voice will make you wince on almost every page. To hear her tell this story is like listening to someone play Aaron Copland on a kazoo. Katharine White, the legendary New Yorker fiction editor, is described as a ‘major-league prune.’ The New Yorker itself is noted for its ‘yuks.’ Horatio Alger’s prose is ‘vomited into the national psyche.’ . . . This book’s tone — I kept waiting for Ms. Meade, like a gum-snapping waitress in a diner, to start calling the reader ‘Hon’ — isn’t improved by her insistence on referring to people by their nicknames.”

At Salon, Laura Miller forgives the “retro-slangy voice.” In fact, she writes, “(I kinda like it myself.) But what makes her book fascinating is more sociological and historical: It opens a window onto the lives of writers in 1930s America as they struggled with anxieties, pretensions, temptations and myths that confound our culture to this day.” In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley calls the book “peculiar,” partly because it can’t help but be imbalanced: “West already has been the subject of a rather massive biography by Jay Martin, and the vultures of academe have picked his carcass to pieces. Presumably the device that Meade fastened upon to distinguish her book from the others was to bring McKenney into the story as, in effect, an equal partner. But West remains the dominant figure for the obvious reasons: He accomplished more, he had more famous and interesting friends, he had a longer life.”

Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney by Marion Meade
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp., $28.00