One among many grotesque incidents in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) occurs in the chapter called ‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the clean old man’. After getting drunk in a speakeasy, the book’s eponymous central character, who works as a newspaper’s agony aunt, staggers into a park with his friend Ned Gates to get some fresh air. In the park’s ‘comfort station’ they encounter an old man sitting on the closed lid of one of the toilets. Gates sings ‘If you can’t get a woman, get a clean old man’ and they drag him out into the park. His fear and passivity excite them: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts fought off a desire to hit him’. They now take him drinking and insist on his telling the story of his life. When he demurs, Gates says, ‘We’re scientists. He’s Havelock Ellis and I’m Krafft-Ebing. When did you first discover homosexualistic tendencies in yourself?’ The old man becomes indignantly defensive and tries to strike Miss Lonelyhearts with his cane, but Gates disarms him.
This moment of violence appeals to Miss Lonelyhearts’ sadism: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts felt as he had felt years before, when he had accidentally stepped on a small frog. Its spilled guts had filled him with pity, but when its suffering had become real to its senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead’. He now takes over the interrogation from Gates, going at it with fresh enthusiasm, and when Gates suggests they stop because ‘The old fag is going to cry’, Miss Lonelyhearts replies, ‘No, Krafft-Ebing, sentiment must never be permitted to interfere with the probings of science’. The old man does, indeed, start crying and when he refuses to tell his story, Miss Lonelyhearts begins violently twisting his arm. Only when somebody hits Miss Lonelyhearts with a chair does he desist from tormenting the man.
To locate what ‘humour’ there is in this scene from a ‘comic novel’, one has to distinguish firstly between ‘jokes’ and then between the audiences which can plausibly be expected to find them ‘funny’. Gates and Miss Lonelyhearts are enjoying themselves at the expense of homosexuals and sexologists; even, perhaps, of science as a whole. It may be that the author is having the same laughs. There is no obvious indication of his distance from his characters here.
[Nathanael West, Miss Lonelihearts and A Cool Million (Harmondswoth: Penguin, 1961), pp.24-26.]