Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The nightmare that is life

Just wow! Nightmare Alley (1946, reissued in 2010 by NYRB Classics), by William L Gresham, is hands down the best book I've read in ages, a stay-up-way-past-your-bedtime page-turner kind of book. It had me crying out loud, "Oh, my gawd!" and "No!" and "What are you thinking?!"

Stanton Carlisle is a carny, with ambitions for a better, easier life. He learns a mind-reading system, and eventually sets up a séance scam. He goes from mentalist to spiritualist minister. He has the sometimes unwitting help of Molly, who doesn't approve of Stan's methods but can neither sway him nor break free of him. She wants out, but Stan revels in this life; it's the only way he can see through to the top. Stan's poising himself for the big one, the dream mark.

There are carnival freaks and gorgeous ladies and some real regular folk, unstable childhoods, unstable minds, crossings and double-crossings, sex and alcohol, mild misgivings and in-too-far-to-turn-back.

It's gritty noir, Jim-Thompson-style (how do I explain the feel?), inside the head of, the more it goes, an increasingly unsympathetic (mostly), really pretty deplorable person. He has it coming.

Nightmare Alley also happens to be a very finely crafted novel. Every chapter is named for a tarot card; taken in sum they map out a reading for Stan. It's clever, but not too clever. And the pacing is brilliant.

Gresham writes some marvellous sentences. When they head to the South: "This was dark and bloody land where hidden war traveled like a million earthworms under the sod." Or about the industrialist with the electricity plant: "The old man's power covered the country like a pair of bat-wings, flapping cold and black."

The mood is relentlessly bleak, and I just ate it all up. The novel seemed particularly fitting for the hot, humid nights we've experienced of late.

Paperclip People (mild spoilers).
Washington Post.

Nightmare Alley was produced as a film (Tyrone Power, 1947) (I'll be looking out for this), and was recently adapted as a musical.

I'm severely disappointed to learn this was Gresham's only novel. But really, a novel like this says everything it has to say. [Edited to add: See comments. He wrote one other novel after all.]

I haven't felt this way since I discovered Patrick Hamilton, and there are some similarities between the two writers: they're of the same generation (indeed, they died within about a week of each other); both had a tortuous relationship with alcohol, and with Marxism (which relationship I know not how tortuous); Hamilton had an affinity for the theatre, Gresham was fascinated by the stage that is the carnival.

And then there are the conmen. Stan Carlisle doesn't start out quite so low, so evil, as I remember Ernest Ralph Gorse to be. But they're both highly ambitious, hardworking in their way, and resourceful. They live by their wits. Everything depends on how well they read people.

So, both writers provide deeply psychological character studies, a close look at the underbelly of the mind. And this kind of character fascinates me. The practical matter of plotting out this kind of an existence and the moral matter of coming to terms with it; living it and living with it; the rationality and the rationalizing.

I'm the sort of person who tries, and I don't think I have to try very hard, to see the best in people. I take things at face value, unless given good reason to suspect it otherwise. I do not think the world is out to get me (though maybe it is, maybe I should). I share my life with someone who suspects the worst of everyone (and to be fair, in his line of work that's a reasonable and effective stance to take). He sees malevolent intent everywhere, and takes it personally. Maybe I'm not very good at reading people but I'm awed by how others do it (whether or not they do it well).

I was conned a few weeks ago, and I knew it even before I handed over my $10, but I handed it over anyway. Why would I be perceived as a mark? (And why did I give her the money?)

[Woman, about 50, reasonably well-dressed, outside the mall entrance to the metro approaches me (and Helena) frantically with, "Do you speak English?" and a story. Her luggage (with purse) was stolen at the train station, she's missed her train now (going back home to Toronto), she's short $8.43 to be able to change her ticket, she came to the mall hoping to catch her friend who works there. She'll send me a cheque, she owns a restaurant. Maybe it's true. If I were conning somebody, I'd try harder for it to make more sense. I gave her $10, which only minutes before I didn't know I had (I found it in a forgotten pocket). Helena and I had an interesting chat about whether we believed her and, regardless whether it was the truth, was it the right thing to give her money. I'm still grappling with why I found it easier to surrender cash to her than I do to most panhandlers.]

According to Stan, fear is the key, the great motivator. So what is the fear that marked me? Fear that I might be seen by my daughter to be cold and unfeeling toward someone's plight? Fear that that plight might actually be true?

Umm, where was I going with this story?

The conman, the con, the con mind — riveting stuff. Nightmare Alley — a bang-up, crackerjack, first rate piece of book.


Stefanie said...

Wow, you make a book I have never heard of before sound really good! It looks like from the cover that it is a NYRBs publication? I will definitely be on the look out for it!

Arthur said...

William Lindsay Gresham did publish a second novel called Limbo Tower which is more of a hospital novel set in a tuberculosis ward. I enjoyed reading it. Limbo Tower is out of print but can be found used on places like

Emily said...

WOW, this book sounds amazing! Onto the ever-growing NYRB list it goes! And the fact that the same author wrote something set in a TB ward is also very intriguing to me. Thanks for the tip, Isabella!

Isabella K said...

Yes, it's NYRB. Originally published in 1946 (I really should remember to mention things like that).

Thanks for setting me straight, Arthur. His other novel is clearly mentioned on both the NYRB site and the Wikipedia entry to which I link, but somehow I latched onto the misinformation I'd read elsewhere. Definitely, I will be scouring the second-hand shops for this one.

I'd never heard of this book till a copy ended up in my hands, and I'm so glad it did. Great insight into human behaviour.

[Post edited to address points noted.]

Bybee said...

Ooooh WOW...must have!
Thanks, Isabella.

Sasha said...

I have this on my shelves, and I thought I'd get to it eventually -- but reading your thoughts on it has me excited, haha. I've bumped it up the TBR pile.

It's strange how the trust I have for NYRB classics can get me to set aside my usual tastes, my preconceptions -- This isn't my usual fare, I think. The jacket copy didn't have me go, "Oh, I need to read this right now." But I trust the publisher. They've given me good reads, consistently so, despite my reading biases.

Thanks for the review!

Isabella K said...

Hey, Bybee — it is pretty wow. Very American, very gritty.

Sasha: I know what you mean about judging a book by its cover(copy) — I'm not sure I would've gone out of my way for this if it hadn't fallen in my lap. I recommend this one over, eg, Sunflower (but they're apples and oranges).