Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

Literary fame has flitted all around William Lindsay Gresham. His name has become associated with C.S. Lewis and Edgar Alan Poe -- although not for reasons you might imagine. He gained a connection to Lewis when his second wife (poet Joy Davidman) left him for the Oxford don after Gresham broke a bottle over the head of one of his sons and discharged rifles into the ceiling during fits of rage. Comparisons to Poe came not only because of his writings' macabre subject matters, but because the Baltimore-born author also killed himself with drugs (sleeping pills, rather than Poe's alcohol). Unfortunately, precious little of that fame landed on Gresham's books. A shame, especially concerning Nightmare Alley, a noir novel both expertly crafted and chilling as the grave.

Stan Carlisle learned the most important lesson of his life during that first season with the Ackerman-Zorbaught Monster Shows: Learn what the mark's afraid and what he wants. If you know those two things (and they're usually intertwined) you own him. That was how the carnival owner trained the drunken geek to eat live animals. He knew the man wanted liquor more than anything, knew the thought of living without the buzz was worse than taking his teeth to a chicken's head. Paying him in whiskey was cheap. And that lesson stuck with Stan, propelled him from being a carny magician to a fraudulent psychic who can charm the dollar bills out of his clients' pockets. But the very thing that propels Stan's rise will also stop it, because he doesn't know what he wants -- or what he truly fears.

Nightmare Alley reads almost exactly like a classical tragedy, only with lots of detours through the worst side streets of early 20th century America. Although Gresham handles his subject matter with what today would be called a delicate hand, he doesn't shy away from gritty topics. Aside from the geek's animal mutilation, there's bare-handed murder, death via back-alley abortion, abominable mental manipulation by the nastiest femme fatale you've ever met, attempted suicide with a pair of nail scissors and a cringe-inducing scene involving prostitution. You get the idea: It ain't pretty. But therein lies its power. Today, pop culture often has us sympathize with the suave trickster, has us cheer him for his ingenuity. We don't do that with Stan. Nightmare Alley's closing moments horrify, but it's a dry-eyed affair. One doesn't weep when a great fraud brings the evil he visited on others back onto his own head.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


Evan Lewis said...

Saw this film for the first time last year and got curious enough about to book to check it out of the library. They selfishly wanted it back, though, before I could get around to it. I hope there's an alley in the book, because I sure couldn't find one in the movie.

Loren Eaton said...

I'd really like to see the film. In the book, the alley is a metaphor that keeps popping up in Stan's dreams. Also, there's a murder that happens in one near the end.