Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Ten Best Books of 2010: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. "Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, 'Well, I got to get me a real geek. You're through.' He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, 'What's the matter? Ain't I doing okay?; So you say, 'Like hell you're doing okay. You can't draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You're through.' Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, 'Okay. But after tonight out you go.' But you give him his bottle.

"That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on him thick. All the while you're talking he's thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling Shakes. You give him time to think it over while you're talking. Then throw in the chicken. He'll geek."

-from Nightmare Alley

Picking a NYRB book as a best book of a given year is a sort of cheating. They are by definition the best books from previous, if often lost, years and thus are by definition some of the best books.

I don't care though. Nightmare Alley is a classic of noir prose and in many regards it is also a classic of American fiction. It is perhaps the best novel written about the secretive, transient lives of carnival workers and more important yet it was written contemporaneous to the height of the American carnival.

The term "geek" or "to geek" are derived from Gresham's dark tale. The geek was a wild man act, usually run by a caller and a certifiable drunkard. The drunk was paid in booze and square meals and all he was expected to do in turn was bite the heads off chickens and fondle reptiles. It takes a lot for a man to end up a geek, evidenced to some extent in the foreshadowing quote above. It takes a lot for man to become that kind of drunkard.

It takes a lot but certainly isn't impossible. Here it is, a slightly updated version of my original review of Gresham's amazingly dark tale.


Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Introduction by Nick Tosches. Fiction. New York Review Of Books. Trade Paperback. 275 pps. ISBN: 9781590173480. $14.95.



Dust when it was dry. Mud whet it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns - lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the Ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been.

-from Nightmare Alley

Terrible to realize, wonderful behold. That's what I'll say about this book. Whatever Nightmare Alley lacks in profundity it more than makes up with a eerily realistic plot that turns a complex sequence of events into page turning bliss. If Chandler and Hammett are considered masters then so must Gresham be.

Though it must be noted that Gresham's twisted majesty has more in common with that of Jim Thompson or James Cain. It has to do with the psychological differences between hard-boiled and noir crime fiction. There is one. It is an important distinction too. The hard-boiled writer deals in the wares of pyrotechnic jargon, cant and typically masculine violence, while the noir writer plumbs the psyche to go deep into the cause rather than the effect. Gresham, like the aforementioned Thompson, was something of a lay student of Freudian psychology and this is evident in the depth of his characters.

Also like Thompson, Gresham was a tragically doomed drunk. Gresham's biography reads like a textbook diagnosis of the symptoms of alcoholism. He wrestled mightily with the disease, seeking out assistance via explorations into Freudian psychology, Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous and Rinzai Buddhism. All were employed and none laid to rest his sodden demons. His supposedly abusive marriage to poet Joy Davidman ended when she left him for C.S. Lewis. It was not long after this occurrence that Gresham committed suicide.

When Gresham was found in his empty apartment he had a suit on and in his pocket he carried business cards that at the four corners read: NO ADDRESS, NO PHONE, NO BUSINESS, NO MONEY and then in the center the grimly humorous: RETIRED. It was September of 1962. Nightmare Alley, Gresham's biggest critical and monetary success, was utterly out-of-print.

Nightmare Alley is about crime and dilemma, guilt and madness, and pulls you in like the mark that you are. It is a novel about the fast-talking, quick misdirection of carnivals. It is about sexual obsession, murder and above all else, alcoholism.

It has also lived a largely underground existence. When Gresham died, no paper carried the story except the New York Post. The bridge columnist mentioned his passing. It seems the cards at least honored the man they apparently condemned.

The label of cult classic was seemingly the novel's fate. That is until 2010 when New York Review Of Books did what they do and brought it back to life, replete with insightful Foreword by Nick Tosches. It's a good ting too because this is not a book that should be underground. This is one for the 20th century's "best" lists.

The novel is organized into chapters that are themed and named for what is known as the major arcana of the tarot card deck. These are the most important cards in the tarot deck and possess the weightiest meanings. They are often unchangeable fates and when aligned in a negative manner have dreadful implications. In Gresham's novel the demigods of the tarot are always leading one further down that bad road the title refers to.

Stan Carlisle is our hero, if you will, and we are privileged to watch him grow up "in the carny." That is, as a worker in a traveling carnival. Published in 1946 and set around that time period, the novel is rich with "old-timey" dialog and the particularly colorful language of the carnival worker. You learn about marks, palming, dabbing cards and above all about the frailties of human perception. Carnies are realists and skeptics, having dissected every magic trick and hustled poor men out of their last few red cents.

Being a work of crime fiction it is always polite for a reviewer to avoid revealing too much of the book. It has very unique twists and turns and they are very much worth experiencing first hand. This is a tale of fate and the constraints the author placed upon it using the tarot card as a framework lend it a somewhat occult feeling. It is a sinister book, which perhaps another distinction between noir and hard-boiled. With noir the evil can be implied or hidden, even if in plain view. In this case the evil is hidden right on center stage, making for an almost Chekhovian implication.

Anton Chekhov observed that a gun mentioned in the first chapter must be used at some point in the story. It must fire.

In the case of Gresham's Nightmare Alley the gun is replaced with a bottle of booze.


Some outro music seemed necessarily.

1 comment:

Terresa said...

Great review, just added this title to my "to read" list. Thank you.