The New Directions edition of Lonelyhearts and Locust has gone through at least 35 printings. Remarkable, really, for a pair of short novels that now seem dated and that always seemed somewhat hysterical.
Lonelyhearts takes place in New York. The title character is a 20-something man who writes the advice column for a city newspaper. He is overwhelmed by the despair and desperation of the letters he receives, and seeks answers, or escape, in sex, drink, and religion. He is tormented daily by his boss, who mocks his Christ complex, but gains a sort of revenge by having an affair with his boss’ wife. The character of Miss Lonelyhearts is repugnant. He thinks of himself as sympathetic to the plight of others; he is tormented by his inability to help those who really need help, but he goes through life causing harm to others and to himself.
Lonelyhearts is a very short work, barely longer than a short story, and feels more like a one-act drama than a novel. It is bleak and emotionally flat. Perfect reading if you are very young and believe that the world somehow just ought to be a better place.
Locust is altogether different. It is set in Hollywood. The main character, Tod Hackett, is an illustrator, a graduate of Yale art school, and employed by a movie studio. Hackett has a jaded and cynical attitude towards LA, seeing it as a place where otherwise decent people come with unrealistic expectations, and become monstrous when those expectations are unmet. In his spare time he is making sketches for a painting that he is planning, called ‘The Burning of LA’, depicting a city gone mad and being torn apart by a mob.
The Faye Greener character is the embodiment of this - a crude and self-centered woman who uses her looks and her lack of conscience to take advantage of those around her. She latches onto a former hotel accountant from Wayneville, Iowa who has come west for his health. The accountant, named Homer Simpson, is a shambling, dull person who is immediately smitten with Faye. The more he fawns over her, the worse she treats him.
The novella ends with the famous mob scene at “Kahn’s Persian Theater”, a tawdry and absurd realization of Tod’s apocalyptic vision.
Locust has aged fairly well. It depicts an America that we are still all too familiar with: obsessed by trivialities, populated with the self-centered, driven by hope and desire, uninformed by reality. If anything, the vicious narcissism of the novella has become commonplace.