First published in 1933, Miss Lonelyhearts remains one of the most shocking works of 20th century American literature, as unnerving as a glob of black bile vomited up at a church social: empty, blasphemous, and horrific. Set in New York during the Depression and probably West's most powerful work, Miss Lonelyhearts concerns a nameless man assigned to produce a newspaper advice column — but as time passes he begins to break under the endless misery of those who write in, begging him for advice. Unable to find answers, and with his shaky Christianity ridiculed to razor-edged shards by his poisonous editor, he tumbles into alcoholism and a madness fueled by his own spiritual emptiness.
During his years in Hollywood West wrote The Day of the Locust, a study of the fragility of illusion. Many critics consider it with F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished masterpiece The Last Tycoon (1941) among the best novels written about Hollywood. Set in Hollywood during the Depression, the narrator, Tod Hackett, comes to California in the hope of a career as a painter for movie backdrops but soon joins the disenchanted second-rate actors, technicians, laborers and other characters living on the fringes of the movie industry. Tod tries to seduce Faye Greener; she is seventeen. Her protector is an old man named Homer Simpson. Tod finds work on a film called prophetically “The Burning of Los Angeles,” and the dark comic tale ends in an apocalyptic mob riot outside a Hollywood premiere, as the system runs out of control.
Born Nathanael von Wallenstein Weinstein to prosperous Jewish parents, from the first West set about creating his own legend, and anglicising his name was part of that process. At Brown University in Rhode Island, he befriended writer and humourist S. J. Perelman (who later married his sister), and started writing and drawing cartoons. As his cousin Nathan Wallenstein also attended Brown, West took to borrowing his work and presenting it as his own. He almost didn't graduate at all, on account of failing a crucial course in modern drama. West indulged in a little dramatics of his own and, in tearful contrition, convinced a gullible professor to upgrade his marks.
After spending a couple of years in Paris, where he wrote his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, he returned to New York, where he managed (badly by all accounts) a small hotel, the Sutton, owned by his family. As well as providing free board for struggling friends like Dashiell Hammett, the job also gave West ample opportunity to observe the strange collection of misfits and drifters who congregated in the hotel's drugstore. Some of these would appear in West's novel Miss Lonelyhearts.
West spent the rest of his days in Hollywood, writing B-movie screenplays for small studios and immersing himself in the unglamorous underworld of Tinseltown, with its dope dealers, extras, gangsters, whores and has-beens. All would end up in West's final masterpiece, The Day of the Locust.
West's life ultimately ended as tragically as his fictions. Recently married, and with better-paid script work coming in, West was happy and successful. Then, returning from a trip to Mexico with his wife Eileen, he crashed his car after ignoring a stop sign and killed them both. This was just one day after the death of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.