A Wink and a Con: On W.L. Gresham

A Wink and a Con: On W.L. Gresham

In Nightmare Alley, whoever you are, you can always depend on the cruelty of strangers.


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 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.

Three years before Nightmare Alley was published, Gene Kelly, in DuBarry Was a Lady, proclaimed himself a rising young man. Stan Carlisle is a rising young leech. Or maybe a termite. Nightmare Alley is about how Stan eats his way through the social barriers, still in place in the 1940s, aided by the willingness to be conned that cuts through the American class strata. Gresham takes us from choked midways, so vividly depicted you can smell the crowds, to wood-paneled mansions existing in a sort of mothballed respectability, so little disturbed by their human inhabitants you’re prepared to believe that there are more spirits in the house than the ones Stan concocts to con his rich patrons.

The narrative describes the arc of Stan’s career, except that he winds up much lower than he started. A poisonous version of the all-American hustler, Stan is, from the moment Gresham introduces him, predatory and yet—and perhaps this is the true mark of the predator—aloof. He approaches every human, from the carnival patrons to the women he beds, with an eye toward advancing himself. A carny trying to learn every trick he can, Stan both sucks up and bides his time, waiting for the right moment to cash in on the cons he’s mastered, the secrets he’s squirreled away.

Gresham opens the book by landing a muffled haymaker right on the reader’s chin. Stan is assisting in the geek act when the carnival owner, who’s running the demonstration, announces that it’s feeding time. Gresham describes what Stan sees after the live chicken is tossed into the pen: "For the first time the paint-smeared face of the geek showed some life. His bloodshot eyes were nearly closed. Stan saw his lips shape words without sound. The words were, ‘You son of a bitch.’" That’s the geek’s realization of what he’s meant to do: become a participant in his own dehumanization. Yet instead of lingering on the grisly details, Gresham pulls the focus back, describing what follows obliquely, through a drunk’s mindless yells of encouragement ("Get ‘at ole shicken, boy!") and a woman’s scream. But there’s something almost worse coming. Stan asks the carnival owner how you find a geek. "You don’t find ’em. You make ’em," he says, and goes on to describe the deliberate sadism of promising a rummy his bottle and then threatening to take it away. Here’s Gresham’s kicker: "The crowd was coming out of the geek show, gray and listless and silent except for the drunk. Stan watched them with a strange, sweet, faraway smile on his face. It was the smile of a prisoner who had found a file in a pie." Stan has taken a compressed master class in manipulation and likes what he sees.

Nightmare Alley contrasts Stan’s unerring instinct for human weakness and his willingness to exploit it with others’ protective awareness of those same flaws. In the novel’s early sections, Stan is sleeping with Zeena, the carnival’s good-hearted fortuneteller and the wife of Pete, who is also the brains behind her act. Pete’s ingenuity had him and Zeena headlining vaudeville before his boozing brought them low. But Zeena remains emotionally faithful to her husband. When Stan asks her what’s going to happen to Pete, she says,

Nothing’s going to happen to him. He is a sweet man, down deep. Long as he lasts I’ll stick to him. If it hadn’t been for Pete I’d of probably ended up in a crib house. Now I got a nice trade that’ll always be in demand as long as there’s a soul in the world worried about where next month’s rent is coming from. I can always get along. And take Pete right along with me.

It’s exactly such tough good-heartedness that Joan Blondell captures as Zeena in the 1947 film version of Nightmare Alley. Zeena’s con is harmless: she pretends to divine what questions her audience has written out for her to answer, and then gives them responses so general they can fit nearly everyone’s circumstance. What Stan wants from her isn’t just an occasional bed mate but the code Pete worked out that will allow for showier displays of "mentalism."

The film, directed by Edmund Goulding from a script by Jules Furthman, is mostly faithful to the novel, and nowhere more so than in the opening carnival scenes. The frame is always crowded, with Tyrone Power’s Stan seemingly pressed in by the crush of the people and the tents and trucks of the circus. Stan is a man straining to get out. Power had to lobby for the role (he’s superb in it), and he plays moviegoers the way Stan will play his crowds when he leaves the circus behind to work as a mentalist and then spiritualist to high society. Even today, nobody goes to the movies expecting to see a leading man willingly turn himself into a bastard. Imagine, then, the postwar audience, primed to swoon over the handsome and charming Power, beginning to feel as if they have been swindled. (They might even feel revenge: by the final scenes, Power, sunken-eyed, looks like a prototype of one of George Romero’s zombies.) Power comes up with one bit of business that captures Stan’s essence: he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him. His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going. And so, when he sets his sights on Molly, the sweet young girl taken in by the circus after her father’s death, it’s clear she’s on her way to becoming his next steppingstone.

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.

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