A Wink and a Con: On W.L. Gresham
William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley (1946) begins in the world of carnival sideshows and, inevitably, ends there. But along the way, the focus shifts from suckers on the midway to high-society marks ready to part with their moolah in order to advance—pardon the expression—the science of spiritualism. The con is essentially the same, but the pigeons get fatter.
When Gresham wrote Nightmare Alley, the first of five books he'd publish before his suicide in 1962 at the age of 53, the social barriers between the sawdusted depths of the sideshow and the rarefied air of the moneyed classes were still in place. Reading the novel now, when the gap between rich and poor is nearly as wide as it has ever been in this country, you're struck by how many other barriers have collapsed. Put it this way: the week I was reading Nightmare Alley was also the first time I watched an entire episode of American Idol. The show made the crowds in Gresham's novel who pay to see a geek bite the head off a live chicken seem almost wholesome.
The down-and-out dipsos carny managers sucker into working as geeks for the promise of a bottle and a better job are people caught at their most helpless. The contestants on American Idol, ready to make themselves over into a commodity, imitating arena-scale rock-star solos and gestures that had no sincerity or spontaneity to begin with, listening avidly to the advice of that slick packager Simon Cowell ("talent scout" is too dignified an appellation), are there by choice. So are the third-rate celebrities on Dancing With the Stars (some of them known from previous appearances on reality TV) and the ones even lower down the scale on Celebrity Fit Club or Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Then there are the ones like Kirstie Alley or the Kardashians or Flavor Flav, whose weight gain or collective cup size or horndogging ways rate them their very own big top. In our era of multi-tasking and reinvention, these celebrities are both the carny barker and the main attraction. How long until a bevy of cocktail waitresses and car-show models are invited on VH1 for the chance to appear on a reality show called Tiger Woods' Hole in One? What constitutes a freak when nearly the entire culture has become a freak show?
You don't have to be a cultural conservative or a scold to acknowledge the tabloidization of society that has arisen from the eradication of the lines that once separated journalism, gossip and publicity. Ours is not the first era in which people are famous for being famous. In George Cukor's gentle satire It Should Happen to You (1954), a nobody, played by Judy Holliday, becomes a celebrity when her name winds up on billboards all over New York City. But our era is, perhaps, the first in which the potential for self-destruction has been a catalyst for gaining fame. When the entertainer Oscar Levant made his famous appearances on The Jack Paar Show in the early 1960s, his jokes about his own institutionalization were nervous-making. But Levant was there because of his wit and quickness and incredible talent for repartee—one of his better wisecracks was "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line." It was not because Paar was hoping his guest would melt into a hot mess and generate big ratings.
None of this is to say that Nightmare Alley stirs up nostalgia for the world it depicts. The novel is not charming or welcoming. European movies, from 8½ to Jacques Rivette's latest, Around a Small Mountain, have a tradition of using the tawdriness of circuses and carnivals as an affectionate metaphor for creation and what Inspector Clouseau called "life's rich pageant." And then there's the condescending tradition of arty slumming epitomized by the work of Diane Arbus.There's nothing of the tourist, either poetic or disdainful, in William Lindsay Gresham. He has more in common with Weegee, the photographer who hit the gutters of New York and caught the most appalling subjects, from fresh corpses to drunken midgets dressed like St. Patrick's Day leprechauns, in a glaring, pitiless light. Nightmare Alley shares with Weegee a fascination with the sordid and also a simultaneous commitment to realism and a compulsion to twist reality into swirling, distorted grotesquerie. This isn't to be confused with the sweat and press of the crowds found in the novels of John Dos Passos or the canvases of Reginald Marsh. The marriage of sensibilities that best conveys Gresham's flavor is the blunt, pulpy cruelty of Jim Thompson seen through the eyes of David Lynch. Gresham is a surrealist muckraker, though the dirt he's uncovering is less in the carny racket than in the soul of his protagonist, Stan Carlisle.