William Lindsay Gresham
(New York Review Books Classics; 304 pages)
(NYRB Classics, reissue edition; April 6, 2010)
Stanton Carlisle, “The Great Stanton” in William L. Gresham’s classic post-war noir novel, Nightmare Alley, is a two-for-one: for the price of a protagonist, you get the villain of the story as well as his biggest victim.
Gresham’s shocker is framed front and back with the nightmarish Geek, a phony wild man whose act consists of fondling snakes and sucking the blood of live chickens. Carlisle assists the “talker” with the act by helping him “feed” the Geek.
During a break in one performance, Carlisle asks Hoately, the “talker” for the act, “How do you ever get a guy to geek? Or is this the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way—liking to bite the heads off chickens?”
“You don’t find ’em. You make ’em,” Hoately says. “You pick up a guy and he ain’t a geek—he’s a drunk. A bottle-a-day booze fool. So you tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.’ You tell him, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. You’ll have a razor blade in your hand and when you pick up the chicken you give it a nick with the blade and then make like you’re drinking the blood. Same with rats. The marks don’t know no different.”’
“After a week you say to him like this, you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. You’re through.’ He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors.
“He says, ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t I doing okay?’ So you say, ‘Like crap you’re doing okay. You can’t draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You’re through.’ Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him his bottle.
“That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.”
|The Great Stanley After His Fall|
The exchange is critical, because it sets up the reversal of fortune that Stan eventually experiences.
At the beginning of the story, Carlisle is a roustabout in a traveling sideshow and rather slick sleight-of-hand artist. He assists the other carnies and works as their backup and shill. To make extra dough, he peddles pamphlets on how to palm coins and do other petty magic tricks, all strictly minor-league stuff.
But Carlisle also has a felonious streak which is revealed early on during a friendly card game with some of the other carnies. When one of the players questions the reliability of the deck, Carlisle checks it and finds it has been marked with a tarry substance called “daub.”
The deck is discarded and Zeena the mind reader’s Tarot cards are substituted for it. Shortly afterward Stan cashes out to call it a night.
As he is walking back to his tent, he palms a small tin from inside his jacket, getting a brown, tarry smear on his fingers from the “daub” it contains. It is the first time the reader realizes Carlisle, himself, was the one who doctored the first deck.
Stan discards the tin but seems uncertain about why he bothered to swindle the other players in the first place: “Why do I have to frig around with all this chickenshit stuff? I didn’t want their dimes. I wanted to see if I could take them. Jesus, the only thing you can depend on is your brains.”
The incident is minor, but it gives a look inside Carlisle’s black heart and sets the tone for the scams to come. Stan is unquestionably a rotter, but his ultimate fate is so horrible readers will feel he’d be better off in prison – or even dead.
Stan has ambitions beyond the cheesy pamphlets he peddles and his spiel aimed at hustling hayseeds fresh off the plow. He sees his name in lights on theater marquees, working his grift in front of sleek, well-fed audiences in tuxedos and evening gowns.
The trick is figuring out a fool-proof hustle that can put him in the footlights.
Carlisle hooks up with the side-show’s mentalist, Zeena, and her alky husband Pete, boffing Zeena while Pete is gone scrounging liquor or passed out in his tent.
Initially Carlisle just wants to get laid. But after Zeena tells him she and Pete were headliners in vaudeville before Pete got too strung out on cheap booze to work the big time, he starts angling to learn the mind-reading racket.
One night Stan slips the dipsomanic Pete a bottle, expecting that he will get shit-faced and pass out, giving Carlisle a shot at the older but still sexy Zeena. What he doesn’t realize is that he has topped up Pete’s hooch bottle with wood alcohol, a violent poison. Pete dies.
It is the first of Carlisle’s numerous crimes. He will kill again before the novel is done.
Pete’s passing gives Stan a guilty conscience, but it also gives him easy access to Zeena. Zeena teaches him the mind-reading game from top to bottom. As part of his schooling, she gives him Pete’s closely held code book that spells out the method to Pete’s big time mind-reading technique.
Armed with the code book and Zeena’s instruction, Carlisle quickly masters the system.
His first big test comes when a hard-nosed small town deputy marshal closes down the show and begins arresting the carnies. Stan does a “cold read” on the cop, asking him about specific events in his past with what seems to be unerring prescience and eventually advising him on his personal life and profession.
The cop, who is initially skeptical, eats it up. He becomes a firm believer in Stan’s ability to see the past and future and lets the hustler go with only a tepid warning to keep the show low-key so the townspeople don’t complain to the police.
“Stan’s collar was tight with the blood pounding beneath it,” Gresham writes, giving us Stan’s reaction to the encounter. “His head was as light as if he had a fever.”
“The world is mine, God Damn it! [Stan thought] The world is mine. I’ve got ‘em across the barrel and I can shake them loose from whatever I want. The Geek has his whisky. The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them. I’m running over with it. I can get anything I want. If I could hand the old fart a cold reading and get away with it, I could do it to a senator! I could do it to a governor.”
Stan teams up with Molly, a relative innocent who wears gear that allows her to throw impressive but harmless electrical sparks. They leave the carnival and begin working supper clubs and small theaters. The act – a combination of cold reading and Pete’s code – is a smash and Stan begins picking up private bookings.
|The Great Stanley in Action|
He moves from a straight mind-reading scam to the “Spook Racket,” a trickier and considerably more dangerous con in which the mentalist pretends to make contact with departed relatives and other shades from the spirit world. His goal is to hustle these suckers into presenting him with large amounts of money for his work as a spiritual go-between.
As a part of his new grift, he meets up with Lilith Ritter, a consulting psychologist whose client list contains dozens of the wealthy suckers Stan hopes to swindle. Ritter has extensive records on her “patients” and makes recordings of her therapeutic interviews with them. Stan figures to use the inside dope to refine and perfect his pitch, setting his sights on Ezra Grindle, a millionaire industrialist who is one of Ritter’s clients.
Unfortunately for Stan, Ritter turns out to be even more twisted than he is. She pretends to assist his scheme, but ends up targeting Stan, himself, as the mark. Ritter takes the phony spiritualist for everything he has already stolen and casts him adrift, one step ahead of the army of private police that Grindle sets loose on him after learning he has been taken.
From this point on, Gresham chronicles Carlisle’s decline and fall, tracing his steps into the Stygian depths of Nightmare Alley.
“Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream,” Gresham writes at one point. “He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant 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.”
Gresham’s novel is one of the best noir stories I have ever read. The characters are sharply etched and totally believable. Important players have enough back-story to make their actions understandable, and the plot, despite its many complications and twists, is really rather straightforward.
Particularly satisfying is the fact that Gresham’s lifelong fascination with freak shows, circuses and carnivals (he wrote a 300-page non-fiction tome on the subject called Monster Midway) led the author to become an expert on the patois of the sideshow grifter, and he uses his extensive vocabulary expertly and naturally, dropping in just enough of the slang to sell the text.
For example, after his fall from grace he plans to get back into the carny by working the “Mitt game,” a palmistry swindle that serves as a break-in specialty for someone just starting as a “cold reader.”
“He opened the newspaper, scanning the pictures, thinking his way along through the days ahead. I’ll have to hustle the readings and put my back into it. In a carny mitt camp you got to spot them quick, size ‘em up and unload it in a hurry. Well, I can do it. I should have stayed right with the carny.”
Gresham violates many of the writerly rules of the literary set in order to facilitate his narrative. He occasionally shifts the story’s point of view. He also melds straight third person exposition with first person quotation as a sort of literary shortcut. In spots, he slips into stream of conscientiousness, repeating phrases, restating key points and abandoning ideas in mid-thought.
In other writers’ hands, these techniques can be confusing or gimmicky, but used by a master – like Selby, Kerouac or James Ellroy at his sharpest – they can elevate story-telling to new heights. For Gresham they work perfectly, giving his narrative an feverish, almost hallucinogenic feel.
In addition, the author’s ear is extremely sensitive to dialect. In one passage, Gresham describes Carlisle’s fascination with the language of the carnies as well as that of their marks.
“The speech fascinated him. His ear caught the rhythm of it and he noted their idioms and worked some of them into his patter. He had found the reason behind the peculiar drawling language of the old carny hands – it was a composite of all the sprawling regions of the country. A language which sounded Southern to Southerners, Western to Westerners. It was the talk of the soil and its drawl covered the agility of the brains that poured it out. It was a soothing, illiterate, earthy language.”
To me, Nightmare Alley is a book without any major flaws. A couple of weeks ago, I checked out a copy from the public library along with a DVD of the fine motion picture starring Tyrone Power that was made from it. I read several parts of the book more than once before turning it back in, and then bought a Kindle edition for my own reader.
Trust me: I will be going back to it time and again. It’s just that good.
A word about other versions
Gresham’s frightening tale of greed, lust and their fateful consequences is the product of a writer whose personal life was almost as tragic as that of his protagonist, Stanton Carlisle.
Like Carlisle, he was an alcoholic with big plans who ended up a literary footnote. In addition to his dipsomania, he suffered a bout of tuberculosis that put him in a lunger's ward for a time, inspiring his other major work of fiction, the lightly-regarded Limbo Tower.
At 53 years old, the novelist took his own life in a shabby hotel room much like the ones in which Carlisle hides after his descent into Nightmare Alley. He was going blind and had been told he was suffering from cancer.
|William L. Gresham|
All Gresham left behind was a cryptic business card, its corners emblazoned with the terse messages “no address,” “no phone,” “no money” and “no business.” Centered precisely between them all was the single word, “retired.”
He had become the literary equivalent of the Geek in a traveling carnival.
Nightmare Alley was his master work. The rest of his literary output consisted of a handful of short stories and articles; a 300-plus page non-fiction book on carnival life, Monster Midway; a novel about the patients and staff in a high-rise tuberculosis hospital, Limbo Tower; and a biography of Harry Houdini, The Man Who Walked Through Walls.
Virtually all he is known for today is Nightmare Alley, which received mixed notices when it was originally published, but has since built a cult following for its bleak amoral atmosphere and bizarre conclusion. up by other media.
A graphic novel version of Nightmare Alley was adapted by the incredible Spain Rodriguez in 1998 (136 pages; Fantagraphics Books; 1st edition Feb. 18, 1998) that includes much of Gresham’s original text, imaginatively illustrated with Rodriquez’s squared-off art and taut chiaroscuro rendering.
The graphic version is sadly out of print, but copies are still floating around the Internet and in many first-rate comic book stores.
But perhaps the best known adaptation is the 1947 black and white film directed by Edmund Goulding and starring matinee idol Tyrone Power as Carlisle, Joan Blondell as Zeena and Coleen Gray as Molly.
The motion picture, originally released by 20th Century Fox and available on DVD and Blueray, is shorter and less fully textured than the novel. It drops a number of subplots that are critical to the written narrative but not really necessary for film.
The chief change is to make Carlisle slightly more sympathetic than he is in the book (for example, Stan is horrified that he has poisoned Pete in the movie, and shows real regret at the inadvertent homicide; in the book, he seems most disturbed by the possibility he will be caught and charged with the alcoholic’s death.)
Another deviation is Stan’s rapprochement with Molly at the end of the film. No such reunion takes place in the novel.
Neither of these is a fatal deviation from Gresham’s nightmarish story, however. Carlisle’s regret over Pete’s death passes quickly and has little impact on his devious scheming. And Molly’s meeting with Carlisle at the end occurs when it is too late to block his decline.
Aside from these relatively minor changes in the story-line, the film version is a relatively faithful adaptation of Gresham’s nightmarish tale. Best of all, the film captures Carlisle’s cynicism and amorality beautifully – which is a coup, considering that Power was best known for playing handsome, clean-cut romantic leads or sword-slinging heros in swashbuckling adventure tales.
Nightmare Alley is a workbook for those who would write first-rate noir. It is a truly wonderful novel which has a hard-edged moral center despite its cynical veneer. This is required reading for anyone who considers him or herself a fan of dark and transgressive crime fiction.