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JACKET COPY

On life's little journey, but with too much baggage aboard

August 31, 2008|DAVID L. ULIN

"He WAS not shaken by the accident reports, not alarmed. What got on his nerves was the incessant hum of wheels on either side of him, the headlights rushing to meet him every hundred yards, and also the sensation of being caught in a tide, with no way of escaping either to right or to left, or even of driving more slowly, because his mirror showed a triple string of lights following bumper-to-bumper behind him."

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That's Georges Simenon, taking on the peculiar horrors of Labor Day weekend in his 1955 novel "Red Lights" (NYRB Classics: 154 pp., $14 paper).

Simenon, of course, is best known for his mysteries featuring Paris police superintendent Inspector Maigret, but for 10 years -- between 1945 and 1955 -- he lived in the U.S., where he wrote some of his most bleak and existential fiction, the so-called romans durs. Here, he gives us Steve Hogan, a frustrated suburbanite, traveling with his wife from New York to Maine to pick up their kids at summer camp. It's a journey that will detour wildly, as Steve drinks his way up the Eastern Seaboard, into a very real dark night of the soul.

Simenon, as always, is great on the details: the way the city empties and the highways fill up, traffic moving at a snail's pace, the Hogans' small car claustrophobic, a battleground in which the minor, ongoing resentments of a marriage not only simmer but explode.

Yet even more, what makes the book so resonant is his ability to evoke Steve's psychological state, his inner conflict between obligation and identity, with an acuity so sharp it hurts. It's no coincidence that Simenon chose this most American of holiday weekends as the setting for a quintessentially American drama, in which the tame surface of domestic life is peeled back, inch by inch, to reveal the roiling tensions underneath.

-- David L. Ulin

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