Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Man Said to Be Author Is Found Dead in Hotel," Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham

I reviewed Nightmare Alley  as part of The Spotlight Series on NYRB Classics. The goal of The Spotlight Series is to draw attention to independent presses and raise the profile of their catalog. The full list of other reviews can be found here.

Nearly relentlessly pessimistic and with an overwhelmingly negative view of human nature, Nightmare Alley doesn't compromise, and Gresham's brilliant novel stands as a great testament to a writer's life cut tragically short. Thankfully, New York Review of Books Classics has just republished a restored edition of Gresham's only novel with a new introduction by Nick Tosches.

By all accounts Gresham was a seeker. In Tosches introduction we learn that Gresham repeatedly attached himself to different "cures" including psychoanalysis, Christianity, alcohol, Alcoholics Anonymous, Marxism, Buddhism and the occult. Gresham seems to have been constantly striving for a place he could feel whole. He never found it. Nightmare Alley seems to be his attempt to work through his pain, and the different vices and fake salvations he fell victim to. 

The novel opens in a traveling carnival where Stan Carlisle, a charming young man, handsome and blond, is trying to earn his keep doing cheap sleight of hand tricks and helping in other routines. But Stan is gripped by ambition, and he's not only learning how to control a crowd, but why they want to be controlled: "Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live....They're all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They're afraid."

Fear is the central theme of Nightmare Alley, and Stan soon becomes a maestro at not just tapping into that fear, but also monetizing it. To Stan, all people are marks ready to have their fortune "read" and their wallets opened, "the outline of the sky's edge around the fair grounds change but the sea of upturned faces always the same."

In the carnival Stan seduces Molly, a vulnerable young woman who falls in love with him. When he and Molly leave the carnival, Stan Carlisle transforms into "The Great Stanton" a spiritualist "minister" to the very wealthy. Molly helps with the cons and plays a ghost when the need arises. Molly's character is a bit thin, and is one of those slightly-annoying female characters who always seems on the verge of tears. Yet, she's so innocent that even when pulling a con that's making them a lot of money she still feels guilty about it; her exaggerated purity, which at times strains credulity, is a useful counter-balance to Stan's unending pessimism.

Part of the joy of the novel, and for all its darkness this is actually a quick and at times very fun novel, is seeing Stan's tricks and putting the pieces together aftewards. Gresham doesn't insult the reader's intelligence or slow down the break-neck narrative to explain step-by-step how Stan does something. Gresham trusts us to figure it out and to keep up with The Great Stanton.

Stan is a damaged man with a level of mom and dad issues unrivaled this side of Greek Tragedy. The novel is repeatedly interrupted by near stream-of-consciousness interludes that pull us directly into Stan's head and forces him and us to confront his tragic past. While it's not a pleasant place to be, these breaks, in which Stan almost loses his mind, allow Gresham to deploy the full range of his rhetorical power: "Ice in the river, piled against the piers of boat clubs, a dark channel in the middle. And always the click of the rail joints underneath. North south east west--cold spring heat fall--love lust tire leave--wed fight leave hate--sleep wake eat sleep--child boy man corpse--touch kiss tongue breast--strip grope press jet--wash dress pay leave--north south east west..."

Gresham has tight control over his narrative, but I absolutely loved the times he took his foot off the brake and let the novel coast wherever it wanted to.

At the end of one of these near-breakdowns, Stan appears at the office of "Lillith Ritter, Psychoanalyst." The Ritter scenes allow Gresham to explore the power of Freudian psychoanalysis, one of his own near-salvations, and make some not so subtle connections between Ritter and Stan. Ritter is one of the coldest and most withdrawn femme fatales in noir fiction, and the power she has over Stan is (like much of the novel itself) impossible to look away from. The scene where she "punishes" Stan by making him paint her toenails walks that Lynchian line between erotically charged and nausea-inducing.

Stan and Ritter (with Molly's unwitting help) set their sights on Ezra Grindle an industrialist with a secret. The Great Stanton comes out in full force while he attempt to separate Grindle from a large portion of his money. Grindle's role in the novel is slightly ambiguous. He's definitely the mark, and part of the reader wants Stan to con him, but  for the most part Grindle's not presented as a villain. Nightmare Alley has very little in terms of a moral center, and Gresham makes it difficult to like any of his characters. We begin to feel for Stan, but that doesn't mean we like him. Grindle at times comes off as vulnerable and sympathetic, until he reveals a darker side of him. The most we can hope for is that Molly and maybe some of the other minor characters from the carnival will make it through in one piece.

The title comes from a recurring nightmare Stan has had since he was a kid, "He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and black and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned; but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light. They have it too--a nightmare alley." The "they" is a reference to Stan's marks, but Gresham means all of us.

Gresham himself spent his whole life looking for a way out of his head through new experiences and new philosophies. They're all burned by staring too hard down that alley, and it not only ruined Gresham's characters, it ruined Gresham himself. Tosches references a letter Gresham wrote years later, "Stan is the author."

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there is an actual glimmer of hope at the end of this extraordinary novel, a character who comes and goes in the blink of an eye but hints that maybe things will get better. Stan's life is saved by a young African American man riding the rails and heading to work in the Grindle factory. Stan tries to do a quick "reading" of the man and scam him out of a nickel, but the "young hobo" doesn't fall for it. Stan begins to complain about how tough life is and how "to get yours you got to pry 'em loose from [their money]." The nameless man is perhaps the only character in the novel that isn't swept up by Stan's oratory and reveals himself to be a "labor agitator." He says, "Someday people going to get smart and mad at the same time," and that's going to change everything.

At the end of the chapter the African American labor organizer, an embodiment of capitalism's nightmare alley, is hiding under a train heading to Grindle, "A spectre was haunting Grindle. A spectre in overalls." This clear reference to the first line of The Communist Manifesto ("There is a spectre haunting Europe-the spectre of communism.") is one of the few blink-and-it's-gone glimmers of hope that Gresham allows. The stranger saves Stan's life, and maybe he will do his part to save the rest of us.

Gresham couldn't personally maintain that optimism. Sixteen years about publishing Nightmare Alley, Gresham, sick with cancer, checked into a hotel in Times Square and took an overdose of sleeping pills. There was a small story about his death in the next day's New York Times with this headline: ""Man Said to Be Author Is Found Dead in Hotel."

After Nightmare Alley was published it was censored significantly, and NYRB Classics should be applauded for bringing back this important post-war novel in its full form.


  1. Oh, what a great and thoughtful review! I am so glad that the NYRB edition is uncensored. What a sad end for Gresham. I wonder if his battle with the illness influenced his writing in any way? It seems like Gresham's battle could very well be his own Nightmare Alley, though I assume I am drawing too many conclusions on too little evidence here. So glad you enjoyed this one and I hope you participate in the next series as well!

  2. I didn't have space in the review to mention this, but Nightmare Alley was adapted into a pretty successful film starring Tyrone Power in 1947.

    Also, it was just recently adapted into a stage musical in Los Angeles.

    The film is a classic, and I'm curious how the book would translate to the stage. Certainly Stan's ambition is grand enough to fill out a few songs, and you could play up the romance in certain parts of the book.

  3. Good review of the musical here:

  4. Great review and very interesting. I haven't heard of this book before.

  5. Thank you for that review! The film doesn't have a mention of Stan's nightmare, so the title of the film can be pretty ambiguous if you haven't read the book... I was wondering. Great film, though, and I'm very tempted to read the book!