A Wink and a Con: On W.L. Gresham
In subject and outlook, Nightmare Alley belongs to the American hard-boiled school, sometimes, not often, repeating its tough-guy clichés and misogyny. Yet the traces of the crime novel, and even of the social novel of the 1930s—the precursor of hard-boiled writing, and most evident here in the condescension with which Stan is treated by some of his society patrons—aren't as strong as Gresham's particularized vision. This is the book of a man contemplating a funhouse hell, and it leaves the impression that he knows it intimately because one of his own legs has already, somewhere along the line, slipped into the abyss.
Nick Tosches's introduction to this new edition of the novel relates some of Gresham's philosophical wanderings: from Loyalist fighter during the Spanish Civil War to psychoanalysis to the Tarot. The biography supplied by the publisher relates the journey from there on: Christianity, AA, Buddhism. Yet for someone who worked so hard to find a system of belief, Gresham comes across in Nightmare Alley as deeply suspicious of everything except the dim possibility of human decency (personified by the humanity of Zeena, who can take care of herself, and Molly, who can't) and the near certainty of bad luck. Each of the twenty-two chapters of the novel corresponds to a Tarot card, and it's no accident that the final chapter is "The Hanged Man." Stan is the book's ultimate sucker, falling for fate's cosmic bait.
We're never in doubt that Stan is headed for a bad end. The Tarot cards at the beginning of each chapter tell you his future has been decided. Gresham relies on the suspense of just what will bring Stan down, how this lowlife will finally give himself away in classy company. Gresham also deploys a wicked version of the "country mouse and city mouse" gag, with Stan as the small-timer running into a major operator with whom he can't compete. That's Lilith Ritter, the psychologist who uses her patient files as a grifter's crib notes, allowing Stan to hook Ezra Grindle, the industrialist whose tragic and mourned boyhood romance makes him ripe for Stan's plucking.
In Nightmare Alley the intractable social barriers of a vanished American past are what make it so dicey for Stan to muck around in the reaches of society his scams take him to. In an early scene, when he and Molly do their mentalist bit at a swanky dinner party, the lady of the house has a servant bring him a note that says, "Kindly do not mingle with the guests." That's the warning that hangs, metaphorically, over the entire story.
Nightmare Alley would not have the power it does if it were set in a more fluid society like ours, where the crass and maybe even the criminal are a ticket to notoriety, where the freak shows have the money and clout of the network divisions of enormous corporations behind them. There isn't a small-town sheriff, like the one who hassles the carny folks here, who is going to try to shut down Viacom because someone complained about VH1's I Love New York.
Though not particularly relevant to the plot, an episode in a suburban rail station at night epitomizes, better than anything else in the novel, Gresham's violation of the normal by the grotesque.
The train to New York was not due for half an hour and Mrs. Oakes, who had been visiting her daughter-in-law, had read the time table all wrong; now she would have to wait.
On the station platform she walked up and down to relieve her impatience. Then, on a bench, she saw a little figure stretched out, its head pillowed on its arms. Her heart was touched. She shook him gently by the shoulder. "What's the matter, little man? Are you lost? Were you supposed to meet mamma or papa here at the station?"
The sleeper sat up with a snarl. He was the size of a child; but was dressed in a striped suit and a pink shirt with a miniature necktie. And under his button nose was a mustache!
The mustachioed baby pulled a cigarette from his pocket and raked a kitchen match on the seat of his trousers. He lit the cigarette and was about to snap away the match when he grinned up at her from his evil, old baby face, thrust one hand into his coat and drew out a postcard, holding the match so she could see it.
Mrs. Oakes thought she would have a stroke. She tried to run away, but she couldn't. Then the train came and the horrible little creature swung aboard, winking at her.
It's the wink that's the real threat of the novel, the thing that repels us and attracts us, just as the midway crowds can't resist peeking at the worst the carny has to offer. Goulding's film of Nightmare Alley, good as it is, loses its vitality once it leaves the carnival. Gresham's novel is so compelling it makes us queasy. But no matter how rarefied (or stultified) the air we breathe in it, Gresham makes sure that the smell of sawdust and sweat and greasepaint and peanuts roasting too long fills our nostrils, and that things we can't smell, like desperation and cunning and a desperate, almost pathetic need to believe, are in the front of our minds as well. Gresham isn't such a cynic that he precludes the possibility of compassion or kindness; Zeena and the naïve, trusting Molly are given endings that good people deserve and rarely get. But what makes the book truly nightmarish is its vision of gullibility and unscrupulousness as dance partners locked in a sadomasochistic two-step. Whoever you are, you can always depend on the cruelty of strangers.