If you've read Chandler, and you've read Hammett ... If you prefer a cigarette to a dame, and a rotgut rye whiskey to both, you'll love this. If you lIf you've read Chandler, and you've read Hammett ... If you prefer a cigarette to a dame, and a rotgut rye whiskey to both, you'll love this. If you like a little Cain, some Goodis or Willeford, even a little raunchy Simenon when he's feeling unreconstructed-- this one is for you.
This is American Gothic, a noir madhouse on wheels. The major opus of cult writer William Lindsay Gresham, this is a fullscale assault on everything legit, anything on the up and up; Nightmare Alley has exactly no characters that have an observable moral compass, nobody who gives a damn. It doesn't succumb to the cliché or conventions of the genre-- it lives for them.
So while the novel has the traditional noir concern for Redemption, (in both popular flavors, Fleeting and Lost)-- there will be no second chances or consolation prizes. Your choice in leading lady, let's see, here we are: either the alluring 'dumb little tomato', or the sympathetic 'double-crossing bitch'. We'll be involved with carny rats, freaks, confidence men, race, sex, dreams, séances, Freud and the Tarot before we're through. The woods are thick, and they're on fire. Keep a move on, pal.
I found it interesting that this is fairly long and rather involved as compared to the typical genre outing, and yet there's not a word wasted, everything counts, nothing is frivolous. This is a one-way ticket to the deadest of dead ends, and there is something transcendental, minimal, about the prose :
The morgue office of Morningside Hospital was a room in the basement inhabited by Jerry, the night attendant, a shelf of ancient ledgers, and a scarred wreck of a desk. There were two kitchen chairs for visitors, a radio, an electric fan for hot nights and an electric heater for cold ones. The fan was going now.
There are a lot of ways to put you in the picture, but generally Gresham just nails it to the floor with the least possible song and dance. Even the matters of existential conflict (and here he prefigures Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, shading the character's every move and introspection with palpable psychic jeopardy, soul-killing hazard), the author moves the narrative along rather than spinning out the melodrama.
If you have the least affection for the categories of pulp, noir, hard-boiled crime or their fellow travelers, I recommend this heartily, as one of the pillars of the genre....more