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Paperback Writers: Nightmare noir

William Lindsay Gresham's novel 'Nightmare Alley' draws deeply on autobiographical sources to tell the story of a doomed carnival hustler.

March 28, 2010|By Richard Rayner

William Lindsay Gresham's novel "Nightmare Alley" (NYRB Classics: 288 pp., $16) tells the rise-and-fall story of Stan Carlisle, a hustling carnival wanna-be who transforms himself into the Great Stanton, a big-time stage magician, and then into a fake psychic, running a "spook racket" before reaching too far and engineering his own catastrophe.

In the end, Carlisle is torn apart by the very same emotional disturbances that have driven him, let down by a woman who loves him and betrayed by another who is even more ruthless than he. The "nightmare" of the title rings true, for this delirious and unstoppable novel -- first published in 1946, famously filmed starring Tyrone Power in 1947 and only now re-issued by NYRB Classics in its full, uncensored version with a new introduction by Nick Tosches -- inverts the American dream. The plot turns the Horatio Alger myth on its head and the psychology leans on Freud, but the torment, the pervading sense that the human creature lives in a trap he or she is doomed never to escape, comes from the heart and mind of the author. Never was noir more autobiographical than here.

"Baptized an Episcopalian, raised an agnostic, in turns a Unitarian, a hedonist, a stoic, a Communist, a self-made mystic, and an eclectic grabber after truth, I had at last come home," wrote William Lindsay Gresham after his reconversion to the Christian faith in the early 1950s.

By then he was already middle-aged. Like Edgar Allan Poe, whose tortured life Gresham's would in some ways recall, he'd been born in Baltimore; he'd scrambled through the Depression, working at odd jobs and contributing to the pulps; he'd served as a medic in the Spanish Civil War, fighting for the anti-Franco side, and his bad lungs had caused him to spend time in a tuberculosis ward; he'd attempted suicide, been through psychoanalysis, and was married (this was his second marriage) to the poet Joy Davidman; he'd spent years studying magic acts, freak shows, carnivals, and the lingo and confidence games often associated with them, research that led to his nonfiction book "Monster Midway" as well as his great novel. He was a scholar of the far-out (he wrote an introduction to Charles Williams' "The Greater Trumps," a novel about the quest for the original Tarot deck, the gypsy cards around which Gresham structured "Nightmare Alley") and a writer who saw poetry where others dared not to look.

"Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, 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," Gresham writes in "Nightmare Alley." "Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of the popcorn boxes and rusting ice-cream spoons to show where it had been."

Gresham distills a microcosm of life into the carnival. He pictures an entire world and explores it. To his hero, however, he gives a different agenda, and in the terrific opening scene Stan Carlisle learns what turns a man into a "geek" (it was this novel that sent the word into common cultural parlance), the lowest of the low, a performer who swallows snakes and bites the heads off live chickens. Stan imbibes the lesson that will empower him:

"The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they are afraid of and sell it back to them. That's the key. The key!"

Stan takes this as his guiding principle, rising higher and higher, until he meets someone who will work the same process on him, "Dr Lilith Ritter, Consulting Psychologist," maybe the scariest femme fatale in the entire noir canon, and certainly the smartest. "The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single, lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again. The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider's silk. It sent its charges into his mind. . . . "

Before long Stan is on his knees before Lilith, spilling the guts of his twisted childhood, licking her feet and painting her toes, a scene that Vladimir Nabokov echoed in "Lolita" and that turned the stomach of novelist Walter Kirn when he wrote about "Nightmare Alley" some years back.

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