The world is Steve Hogan’s mirror. The eyes of the bartenders, policemen, garage owners and doctors he encounters over the course of a Labor Day weekend drive that turns into a binge from hell tell him what he already thinks he knows: He is a drunk, a fool, a coward and a failure. His wife’s eyes tell him the same thing, so he leaves her in their car by a roadside bar and goes in to have a drink, which quickly becomes two, then three. They’re on their way to pick up the kids from camp in Maine. Meanwhile, the radio reports that a prisoner has escaped from Sing Sing, but all Hogan remembers is that they share a last name ending in “gan.” In the bar, Hogan meets a stranger who knows him “like a brother” and has the same blue eyes and white shirt and close-cropped blond hair. After this self-satisfying communion with a character who might only be his reflection in the bar’s mirror, Hogan finds that his wife has continued the journey by bus.
Since this is a novel, nothing is without consequence. We know the escaped con will come into it somewhere, and so he does. Hogan picks him up at another bar and discovers a different mirror image, his ideal man. As Hogan puts it in one of his drunken monologues:
So, you see, they make rules that they call laws, and they call sin anything that scares them in other people. That’s the truth, brother! If they didn’t shake in their boots, if they were real men, they’d have no need for police forces and law courts, for preachers and churches, no need for banks, for life-insurance, for Sunday schools and red and green lights at the street corners. Does a guy like you give a damn for all that?
Hogan’s hero turns out to be the man who just raped his wife, while he was drinking in the first roadside bar. When Hogan wakes up with a hangover, no money, no identification and no idea of what’s happened, he discovers his need for all the forces of order he has just damned. In the end, he will accuse himself of having raped his own wife by proxy and almost by force of will, and that sense of guilt is the only redemption he’s allowed.
Set along the Eisenhower era’s new highways and soon-to-be suburbs spreading from Long Island to New England, Red Lights is but one of the nearly 200 novels Georges Simenon published under his own name. In his lifetime, he made his reputation as the creator of the popular Inspector Maigret series, but tales of the ultra-bourgeois detective with his omnipresent pipe are only a fraction of a total output that includes investigative journalism, pseudonymous crime novellas, a multivolume memoir, as well as the work he considered his best, the psychological novels often known by the alluringly pornographic moniker les durs–the hard ones.
To posterity, then, the Belgian-born writer appears as one of literature’s great graphomaniacs. Where other novelists had moods, fantasies and love affairs that may or may not have influenced their work, Simenon seemed to turn every mood, every passing fantasy, every love affair into a novel. And there were quite a lot of fantasies and affairs. On the rare occasions when he wasn’t writing, Simenon had lots of sex: with prostitutes, mistresses–even with wives (he had two, although his preferred mode was a ménage à trois that included a housekeeper or personal secretary). It usually took him between six and fourteen days to produce a novel. The affairs often took an equivalent amount of time, while the marriages averaged twenty years.
Literary theorist Gérard Genette remarked that graphomaniacs pose a special problem to scholars since it’s hard to know where life ends and writing begins. Does it make sense to mark the end of one novel and the beginning of the next, or should the entire lifework, including journals and random jottings, be understood as a sort of stream of consciousness, and the pauses in between as merely like rests in music? Simenon is a perfect test case, despite the sharply defined compartments and the tight formulaic plots he used to separate the man who was Maigret from the man who was more often Maigret’s quarry–the man who could write The Engagement, a novel that eerily predicted the psychological mechanics of fascism, and the man who lived a comfortable war in an aristocrat’s chateau, hosting dinners for German officers while the Nazi-run film industry adapted nine of his novels.