TONIGHT, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK
The Last Stories and an Unfinished Novel
By Cornell Woolrich
Edited with an introduction by Francis M. Nevins
Carroll & Graf. 409 pp. $26
It was a dark and edgy life for Cornell Woolrich. The tormented writer's paranoia is evident to anyone who reads his classics, "Rear Window" and "The Bride Wore Black." Writing under his own name and using the pseudonym William Irish, Woolrich drew the attention of Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, who found fodder in his prose for noir films that won him fame beyond the pulp publications that had been his unsteady mainstay.
Those who have read Francis Nevins's biography, "Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die," know that Woolrich was the product of a broken marriage and that he lived with his mother throughout much of his adult life, closeting himself with her for years in the family home in Manhattan and, finally, in the stiflingly close quarters of a seedy hotel. The term "reduced circumstances" might as well have been coined for this mother and son, especially during the Great Depression when Woolrich toiled to produce literary fiction on a level with F. Scott Fitzgerald. While Woolrich finally found his metier in pulp fiction, his mother's death was no release for a man who only sank further into the reclusive life.
Now in a hauntingly titled anthology, "Tonight, Somewhere in New York," editor Nevins brings together fiction and memoir that illuminate, in the manner of a black light, the figure Nevins dubs "the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows." Along the way, the man many may have seen as a solitary misfit reveals himself as a lovelorn lonely heart.
Nevins is the first to admit that the writings gathered here are not on a par with the work Woolrich produced during those years spent with Mom in the Hotel Marseilles. Woolrich saw some of his later work as "garbage," which he wrote only because, as Nevins puts it, "he couldn't not write." Nevertheless, the work here is well worth our attention, especially when accompanied by Nevins's unpredictable but always informative commentary. By turns breathlessly superlative, candid and astute, the editor's remarks will keep readers alert, whether they like them or not.
There is no doubt Nevins is writing as a fan when he spills these words: "Like lava from an erupting volcano, there poured out of him at white heat the powerful suspense novels and stories that entitle him to be called the Hitchcock of the written word." But he can also bash his subject with unabashed criticism. Writing about the unfinished novel, "Tonight, Somewhere in New York," Nevins remarks upon "the Stupid Trial scenes Woolrich occasionally perpetrated." He's steadier when he sticks to the facts and plays bibliographical sleuth, telling readers how Woolrich pulled wool over the eyes of editors time and time again by retitling and slightly changing already published stories in order to be paid for them again. Nevins exhibits scholarly skill in sorting and spelling out the metamorphosed versions of Woolrich's work, and he has chosen excellent examples. He brings back into print, after 34 years, Woolrich's portrait of a typewriter-pounding pulp writer in "The Penny-a-Worder." And the autobiographical story "Even God Felt the Depression" is wrenching enough to rival George Gissing's Victorian novel of grinding poverty, "New Grub Street."
Readers may wonder if Nevins realizes what is the greatest service he has done with this collection. To be sure, we see all the warped, paranoid, dark, even bleakly humorous elements we expect from Woolrich here. But these selections bring to the printed page more unexpected, youthful attitudes from the master of the macabre. Consider these lines from "Tonight, Somewhere in New York": "We came out into the Jersey flats, and even they looked good. And fellow, if the Jersey flats look good to you, you've found the right girl, you're doing the right thing." By showing us Woolrich's grasp of youthful love, Nevins makes the hellish darkness of a stygian mind all the more unforgettable.