Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2011 August 24 • Wednesday

Nightmare Alley is a great movie but its source, the first of only two novels by William Lindsay Gresham, is much better. It's one of the best books I've ever read.

The image above is the cover of the first edition but I read the recent New York Review Books paperback edition, which has an introduction by Nick Tosches. Tosches, who apparently has been working on a book about Gresham, begins like this.

Many who read this will have read Nightmare Alley. But it is to be hoped that others will be drawn to read this singular work for the first time. I envy the latter, and I don't want to interfere with the experience that awaits them by delving into matters that would reveal its plot, which grows increasingly more powerful and bizarre from beginning to end.

I, too, will try not to ruin it for anybody who hasn't read it, though the restraint takes an effort.

The first line of the book is "Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek".

Once you've finished the novel, that first line is loaded with meaning.

Stan's trajectory is almost the same in the book as it is in the film adaptation. He starts out working as a magician in a traveling carnival, worms a secret code for a mind-reading act out of a fellow performer and strikes out on his own to make it rich.

This is just a sketch of part of the story. There are many more events and situations in the book than in the movie, and Stan goes places and does things—mostly despicable things—that aren't even hinted at in the film adaptation.

After we meet Stan in the book, we meet his fellow perfomers in the carnival, first by way of the barker's pitch and second by what they're thinking. (Contrasting narratives, one false and one true, form a pattern that runs through the novel.)

Molly, who has an electric chair act, gets several pages to tell us her life story. It's a great story and crucial to the plot.

Bruno is the strong man who secretly loves Molly. Major Mosquito is the small man, whose compact form contains overwhelming rage and hate.

Joe Plasky is the "Half-man Acrobat" He lost the use of his legs in childhood and keeps them tied in a knot while he gets around on his hands. Those hands of his turn out to be important to the plot also.

The other really important character is Zeena, the fortune teller, without whom there would be no story. Zeena is also the most admirable character in the book. (And let's remember that Zeena Parkins made a record called Nightmare Alley.)

The least admirable character in the book is the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, who is, according to Nick Tosches, "the most viciously evil psychologist in the history of literature".

Psychology is the real subject of the book, in particular the source of Stan's relentless drive and his readiness to use and exploit people, and how he fails to recognize how he himself could be used and exploited.

Freudian themes are very important to the plot but not overlabored in the writing. Irony abounds, as does sex, violence, alcohol, greed, cruelty and, most of all, fear.

There's even some real magic to go with Stan's superlative cons. The Tarot deck, which gives each chapter its title—and the cover of the first edition features The Hanged Man—accurately forecasts events in the characters' lives. It's not overdone but happens just two or three times, just enough to add the right seasoning to this stew. (It's a tiny bit like the use of the I Ching in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle.)

Nightmare Alley is one of those rare books in which nothing is incidental or superfluous. Every element is in balance or harmony with another. There are no coincidences, no necesssary suspensions of belief, no characters who behave out of character. It's so perfectly structured and detailed that I kept a log of notes and observations.

And the writing is superb.

The carny turned south and the pines began to line sandy roads. Cicadas drummed the late summer air and the crowds of white people were gaunter, their faces filled with desolation, their lips often stained with stuff.

Everywhere the shining, dark faces of the South's other nation caught the highlights from the sun. They stood in quiet wonder, watching the carny put up in the smoky morning light. In the Ten-in-One they stood always on the fringe of the crowd, an invisible cordon holding them in place. When one of the whites turned away sharply and jostled them the words "Scuse me," fell from them like pennies balanced on their shoulders.

Much later in the book Stan finds himself having his fortune read. "Gypsy music was filtering out on the heated air."

When the drinks came he offered the waiter a bill but it was waved away. "Later. Later. Have good time first. Then comes the payment—the bad news, huh? Have good time—always have to pay for everything in the end."

That's for sure.

Nightmare Alley is amazing. I immediately ordered copies of Gresham's other novel, Tower Limbo, as well as his non-fiction book about the carny, Monster Midway. I'll read them and I'll read Nightmare Alley again someday. And I'll definitely read Nick Tosches's book about Gresham, whenever it comes out.