'Nightmare Alley,' by William Lindsay Gresham, reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, May 13, 2010; C02


By William Lindsay Gresham

New York Review Books. 275 pp. $14.95

While I've known for a long time that William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley" (1946) was an established classic of noir fiction, I was utterly unprepared for its raw, Dostoevskian power. Why isn't this book on reading lists with Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" and Albert Camus' "The Stranger"? It's not often that a novel leaves a weathered and jaded reviewer like myself utterly flattened, but this one did.

"Nightmare Alley" portrays 1930s America as a sleazy, run-down carnival, where everyone is either on the make, a born sucker or trapped in a real or psychological cage. Nearly all its major characters are emotionally damaged or physically deformed. Except for one, each is also pitiable -- there, but for the grace of God, go you or I. The exception, as Nick Tosches writes in his introduction, ranks among the most viciously evil figures in all modern literature. And even she has her torments.

In the opening pages, set in the dilapidated Ten-in-One "carny," handsome blond Stan Carlisle stares at a geek, a supposed wild man who bites the heads off live chickens and drinks their blood. Stan, we soon learn, has been working as a magician and sleight-of-hand artist, but he's got dreams about the big time. Before long, we also meet the randy, grotesquely tattooed Sailor Martin; the spiteful dwarf Major Mosquito; the kindly acrobatic Joe Plasky, who swings himself along on his hands because his legs are completely atrophied; the foreign strong man Bruno; and the frail and beautiful Mamzelle Electra, whose real name is Molly and who seems unnaturally occupied with memories of her father. All of them think about sex more or less all the time, except for those who think about the next drink.

To start his climb upward, Stan begins by seducing the fortuneteller Zeena, chiefly to learn the secrets of a mind-reading system. Stan regards her, as he regards everyone, as simply the means to an end: During one mini-crisis, "a thrill of alarm raced along Stan's nerves at the thought of Zeena's being able to do without him before he could do without her." In her carnival act Zeena sometimes picks up the tarot deck, and when she deals out these mysterious cards, they seem to comment on the novel's plot and characters. Appropriately then, Gresham names the chapters of his book after the darkly symbolic Major Arcana -- e.g., "The Fool," "The High Priestess," "The Lovers," "The Wheel of Fortune" and, of course, "The Hanged Man."

Throughout these early pages, the carny atmosphere is redolent of sweat, dust, alcohol and pent-up desire. While sex in "Nightmare Alley" is never graphically described, it is always strikingly perverse or distinctly sadomasochistic:

" 'Don't hurt me, Stan, honey. Don't.' His collar choked him, the blood hammering in his throat. 'Oh. Stan -- hurt me, hurt me, hurt me -- .' "

Like many good artists (and con artists), Gresham isn't locked into a single style: He can swiftly modulate from the colorfully vulgar conversation of the carnies to their smooth, stage-show patter, from the professional lingo of sheriffs, psychologists and wealthy businessmen to a drunk's hallucinatory stream of consciousness. At times he even rises to a kind of Dust Bowl lyricism: "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 snuff."

In due course, Stan leaves the carny to work in New York, conning rich ladies with a mentalist act while waiting for that shot at the big time. Gradually, we learn about the traumas of his childhood, involving an unnaturally seductive mother and a hated father. The Great Stanton is, in truth, far more vulnerable than he lets on. "Oh, Christ, why do you have to grow up into a life like this one? Why do you ever have to want women, want power, make money, make love, keep up a front, sell the act, suck around some booking agent, get gypped on the check -- ?"

Stan nonetheless puts on a good show. "I can see, madam, that there are many persons surrounding you who are envious of your happiness, your culture, your good fortune and -- yes, I must be frank -- your good looks." Even far from the South, the sexual climate continues to be tropical. At a particularly swanky soiree of the well-to-do, the Great Stanton notices "one of the season's debutantes, who had already made the papers with an affair involving a titled ?migr?. . . . She sat primly holding a highball on her knee, her white dress so low-cut that Stan fancied he could see the aureoles of her nipples."

Following a mail-order ordination, Stan turns himself into a phony preacher, a minister of the spiritualist Church of the Heavenly Message. Soon thereafter, he discovers the mark of his dreams, the immensely wealthy businessman Ezra Grindle. Though skeptical of contact with the Other Side, Grindle is desperate for forgiveness and for a chance to reunite with a lost love. With the help of an unscrupulous psychologist, Stan gradually sets up Grindle for an elaborate scam. Little does he realize what furies he is about to unleash. "Fear," as he himself knows, "is the key to human nature." But not only fear. Everyone twitches when the right sexual thread is pulled.

Gresham lived a colorful if troubled life. According to the biographical note to this edition, he "lost himself in a maze of what proved to be dead-ends for him, from Marxism to psychoanalysis to Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous to Rinzai Zen Buddhism." All these contribute to the earthy richness of "Nightmare Alley." Gresham did go on to write a few other books, most notably a biography of Houdini (which I can remember reading as a boy), before killing himself at 53. Still, the most notable factoid surrounding him involves his wife, Joy Davidman, the dedicatee of "Nightmare Alley." She left Gresham, traveled to England and there met, and ultimately married, the novelist, scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Did Lewis, I wonder, ever read "Nightmare Alley"? His books frequently address the problem of human pain, of temptation and sinfulness, of damnation. Certainly, Gresham's book chronicles a truly horrific descent into the abyss. Yet it's more than just a steamy noir classic. As a portrait of the human condition, "Nightmare Alley" is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company