It was late 1938 or early 1939. William Lindsay Gresham was in a village near Valencia, awaiting repatriation after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, when he first heard about the geek from a man named Joseph Daniel Halliday. The men were drinking when Halliday regaled Gresham with his knowledge of this unusual carnival attraction, an alcoholic driven to such desperation that he bites the heads of live chickens to secure his next drink, decades before such sadistic entertainments would be employed and domesticated by the likes of Alice or Ozzy. The sad story of the geek resonated deeply with Gresham, haunting him, at least until 1946, when his first novel was finally published.
Stan is a handsome, bright young carny working on a modest slight-of-hand act, though he has vague ambitions for greater things. Nightmare Alley begins with Stan observing the geek for the first time, amazed and appalled. The barker assures his audience of the geek’s genetic singularity: “…he has two arms, two legs, a head and a body, like a man. But under that head of hair there is the brain of a beast.” What the geek assures Stan of is man’s fundamental frailty and perverse fascinations, the understanding of which strikes him as crucial or survival. Stan observes the audience’s primal rapture: “…the crowd moaned in an old language, pressing their bodies tighter against the board walls of the pit and stretching.” Sizing up his marks, he smiles “the smile of a prisoner who has found a file in a pie.” The weaknesses and anxieties that burrow and fester in each of us are to be Stan’s field of study as he works his way up out of the carnival circuit and onto more baroque and profitable grifts among the cultural elite. He discovers a hidden book that reads like an instruction manual for his future. “Think out things most people are afraid of,” it reads, “and hit them right where they live.” But those weaknesses and anxieties also taunt Stan as he tries to ward off his own insistent visions of looming perdition: “In the hot sun of noon the cold breath could strike your neck. In having a woman her arms were a barrier. But after she had fallen asleep the walls of the alley closed in on your sleep and the footsteps followed.”
In its love of con mechanics and its particular way of mirroring of its protagonist’s gradual mental collapse in the shifting tone of its prose, Nightmare Alley to some degree looks forward to the novels of Jim Thompson, who would be far more prolific than Gresham, though even his most ambitious works cannot match Nightmare Alley’s scope or sustain. There’s also a kinship between these authors in how they write about sex as something ultimately tawdry and doom-laden yet enduringly alluring and captivating upon discovery. There’s something tender and compassionate in Gresham’s evocation of Molly, the electrical girl with whom Stan falls in love, whose pa told her never to make love to a man whose toothbrush you wouldn’t use. (Not bad advice!) The belated loss of virginity is for Stan a revelation: “This is what all the love-nest murderers killed over and what people got married to get. This was why men left home and why women got themselves dirty reputations. This was the big secret.” Stan’s lingering psychic wounds are of an Oedipal nature. His buried desires manifest most dramatically in the affair he concocts with the icy psychotherapist with whom he’ll concoct his most ornate scheme, and whose vocation is to him just another racket. “I know what you’ve got in there,” he boasts to the doctor, “society dames with the clap, bankers that take it up the ass, actresses that live on hop, people with idiot kids. You’ve got it all down.” Stan has an interest in all forms of human folly, but those derived from lust are the ones he himself seems unable to master.
Newly re-printed and handsomely bound by New York Review of Books Classics ($17.95) with an informative introduction by Nick Tosches, the return of Nightmare Alley has been for me a tremendous discovery. I knew of it mainly from the excellent 1947 film version, brilliantly adapted by Jules Furthman, directed by Edmund Goulding, and starring Tyrone Power. I hadn’t guessed that this pulp source material for some prime noir was itself a masterpiece and something more than a crime novel. It’s a portrait of postwar shadows engulfing a vast American landscape that crushes the likes of Stan in a confluence of exploitation, alcohol, repression, ideology, materialism, religious longing, and dubious promises of upward mobility. Though there were a number of non-fiction works, including a book on Houdini, Nightmare Alley was one of only two novels from Gresham, who was himself it seems crushed by a cocktail of voracious personal demons and bad luck. He tried to ward off his own nightmare alley with booze, Marxism, Christianity, psychoanalysis, and three marriages, the most famous being to the poet Joy Davidman, to whom Nightmare Alley is dedicated, who bore Gresham two children before leaving him for C.S. Lewis in 1953. Grisham suicided in a hotel room off Times Square in September of 1962, unemployed and without prospects, at the age of 53.
Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in the film version of Nightmare Alley
Nightmare Alley covers a lot of territory, both psychologically and geographically, crossing the US by truck, train, car, and on foot until Stan’s world seems not larger but smaller, shrinking to a blackened point. His carnival experience comes full circle, like the embrace of a family whose door always remains forbiddingly open, and some of Gresham’s finest passages evoke for us this family on the move, seductive and grotesque and leaving only cavities in its wake: “It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns—lights and noise and a chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild-man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been.”