Archive for the 'Novel' Category

The Outlook for Earthlings

The Outlook for Earthlings
Joan Frank
Regal House Publishing 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Melanie Taper and Scarlet Rand are Northern California-raised, self-searching, not always in sync, but supportive of one another since they were teenagers talking about boys and books at the school bus stop. Joan Frank’s ambitious new novel, The Outlook for Earthlings, is a puzzle-perfect narrative of interlocking flashbacks and flash-forwards, chapters qualifying and revising one another, circling elusive truths, charting the vicissitudes of Melanie and Scarlet’s decades-long friendship. Our perceptions and sympathies are jerked and jolted. Perspectives multiply. Consider a character’s anxiety when she ends a college affair with a married professor: “She felt like a cubist painting, pieces of her broken off and floating about the room. Mouth here, hand there, eyeball there.” The cubist dysmorphia foreshadows a medical illness.

Friendship cannot function without a measure of confoundedness. Melanie might privately think of Scarlet, “Heavens, the woman wore her emotions like a sandwich board.” Scarlet, in an unkind moment, casts Melanie as a “docile homemaker” to Scarlet’s “globetrotting roustabout.” (Just as quickly, Scarlet retracts the labels as “vain, reductive.”) As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Scarlet lives her dream. Both women will eventually hold down unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet. Melanie Taper, one of the most enigmatic characters in recent fiction, becomes a prodigious autodidact:

Mel knew all of Shakespeare, much of it by heart. She was reading Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Musil, Unamuno. She listened to postgraduate lectures on cassette while she drove to work: Philosophy of Religion, Foundations of Western Civ. She had lately told Scarlet, in perfect seriousness, she thought she should learn Italian so that she could read Montale and Morante in the original. 

Melanie writes stories and novels and never seeks their publication. She’s preternaturally selfless in marriage and love. (“Subjugating oneself like some wretched servant” is Scarlet’s interpretation.) Melanie’s endlessly expanding and long-delayed graduate school thesis on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is conceived as a kind of emotional rescue of the epileptic Prince Myshkin. (“She felt this way about others, literary or real: poor Raskolnikov; poor Van Gogh. Somebody needed to make them some soup.”)

Joan Frank has a painter’s eye for the natural world. (“The early sun struggled through the fog, a light of dirty wet coins.”) And a keen appreciation for the way our senses are assaulted by institutional spaces, such as academic administration offices. (“Smells of cleaning fluid, aging paper, bookbinding, overcooked coffee.”) The Outlook for Earthlings doesn’t discount the possibility of spectral visitations within the naturalistic confines of our world, but neither does it comfortably decipher them for us when they perhaps appear. The author’s tough-minded body of work, which includes numerous award-winning novels, short story and essay collections, has long refused to do the reader’s necessary work. Our task is clear. Each of us must answer for ourselves when this forceful and singular novel, arguably Joan Frank’s finest work to date, asks of us, “Did any ending ever befit the life it capped?”

Antkind

Antkind
Charlie Kaufman
Random House 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Antkind.jpgAt 720 pages, Antkind succeeds as a large-scale comic novel. This is an impressive feat for a first-time novelist (albeit a first-time novelist who happens to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter). Line for line, page for page, Antkind is frequently deliriously funny. Kaufman’s 1990s TV scripts for comics like Chris Elliot are a clear influence. Antkind’s narrator and protagonist, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a self-important film critic, has the snotty arrogance that Elliot mastered so perfectly. Chris Elliot’s willingness to risk unlikeability is both his genius as a comic performer and probably his undoing with audiences (e.g. Cabin Boy). Charlie Kaufman seems to intuitively understand that an insufferable character is only as bearable as the jokes exposing the character’s pretensions and selfishness. Antkind has the jokes like Arby’s has the meats. As Kaufman has shown in his wildly inventive film scripts (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), he’s never met a meta gag that he can’t spin into comedy gold. Not unlike Martin Amis’s insertion of “Martin Amis” as a character in his novel Money, Antkind’s film critic is deeply hostile to the very real films of Charlie Kaufman (while extolling the more comfortably mainstream films, both real and imaginary, of Judd Apatow). Although the novel’s sci-fi trappings—time-travel and multiverses—seem at times like a lesser work by Philip K. Dick (name-checked in Antkind as an “American primitivist”), Antkind’s slapstick exuberance is like a live-action Tex Avery cartoon.

Two by Joan Frank

Where You’re All Going
Four Novellas
Joan Frank
Sarabande Books 2020

Try to Get Lost
Essays on Travel and Place
Joan Frank
University of New Mexico Press 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The publication of two new books from writer Joan Frank offers readers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to experience the range of her literary gifts. The four novellas in Where You’re All Going demonstrate the author’s eye for observational and psychological detail. Frank’s characters, no matter their documented flaws or shortcomings, are often mesmerized and transported by music and art. A character swooning in revery describes jazz singer Johnny Hartman as having a “blackberry-syrup voice.” Viewing portraiture by the painters Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent is “like a form of time travel.” Observational and psychological detail are also the qualities that bring an immersive richness to her travel essays in Try to Get Lost. She spurs herself, and all of us, to follow “Henry James’s injunction—to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” While adding, with the flinty wisdom of a seasoned traveler, “Understand you will continue to fail spectacularly at this.” (“Resolve it anyway,” she advises.)

Frank.GoingFrank’s well-received 2017 novel, All the News I Need, introduced us to one of the most memorable characters in recent literature. Splenetic, yet fulsomely life-affirming, Frances “Frannie” Ferguson. Frannie reappears in Where You’re All Going, in the novella “Open Says Me.” Retired and unmoored in Northern California since the death of her husband, Frannie marks time, literally, singing and performing with a local choral group. Music sustains her. Buoys her. (“Melodies like currents, pushing away everything that is not them.”) Deliriously profane. “Christ on a cracker,” is a milder locution. An imbiber of whatever’s on hand, such as diet ginger ale laced with “long quantities of Cuervo Gold.” Frannie’s attraction to a thirty-something D.J. is fueled less by alcohol and poor judgment than enthrallment to their shared deep-cut knowledge of American pop music. She invites the D.J. to a choral concert and an after-show meet-up. Humiliation and self-loathing ensue. A children’s park train is involved. The story’s final image is grotesque, wistful, and wildly hilarious all at once.

Writer Richard Ford, in his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, tells us that novellas (typically running between sixty and a hundred and twenty pages in length) are “nicely suited to stories of character disintegration.” Frank deploys this trajectory with skill. As well as its opposite: characters circuitously winding their way toward wisdom and insight. In Frank’s novella “Biting the Moon,” the narrator shares memories of her romance years ago with a celebrity composer. The story grows increasingly fraught as she recalls drunken and abusive behavior from him. Her memories shift and mature as she confronts and interrogates them. Joan Frank’s novellas crystalize the passage of time in profound ways. The final two stories in Where You’re All Going, “Cavatina for Passenger X” and the title novella, channel Chekhov in their microcosmic portraits of community, friendship, marriage. (“Every marriage contained the seeds of its own end, happy and unhappy in almost equal measure until, by whim or accretion, the balance tipped.”)

Frank.LostImpersonal travel essays are nowhere to be found in Frank’s deeply personal collection of travel essays, Try to Get Lost. She is blessedly blunt about this turbulent era “of perhaps the most frightening protofascist ever to assume office in American history.” Her essay “Red State, Blue State” is a Baedeker for bad times. Survival strategies include everything from exercise to charity work to “you drink.” Pulling up stakes is an option, not a panacea. “Travel beats us up,” she admits in “Shake Me Up, Judy.” “Sleep’s elusive. Stress is amped.” Her sketches of European cities benefit enormously from shoe leather reporting (and the accompanying shin splints). The verisimilitude is breathtaking. Shop windows in Italy (“In Case of Firenze”) inspire a cinematic cascade of history and culture:

Itemize what you see: dusty, crumbling books, violins and mandolins, vases and dishes, forged bells, paintings from centuries-old flea markets, maps, inscrutable scientific instruments, decrepit birdcages, flags, buttons, globes, chess sets, rusting anchors, pulp paperbacks in multiple languages, bed-frames, empty bottles, belts, sconces, trays, mirrors, cracked pages from old botanical texts of hand-tinted prints torn out and framed. Etchings and woodcuts. Bad art. Bad furniture. Exquisite art. Exquisite furniture, draped with insanely expensive tapestries. Chandelier crystals. Kitchen appliances. Living room sets. Faience. Crates of tarnished, unmatched jewelry. Gilt sculpture. Murano glass. Religious icons. Life-sized statuary. Broken toys, cheesecake photos, unclassifiable objets from the 1950s. Wooden clocks painted in garish designs, pendulums ticking away.

“Place becomes, finally, the only subject,” she writes in “The Where of It.” “Place is identity, style, faith, cosmology.” Joan Frank’s own story is threaded throughout Try to Get Lost. “Cave of the Iron Door” is a searing essay about hard family memories evoked on returning after many years to her childhood home in Arizona. “Here was the original world,” she writes. “Your big bang.” Sadnesses endure. They travel with us. A lost museum ticket on a trip to Germany in “Little Traffic Light Men” triggers a welling up of grief for her recently deceased sister. (“Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: it is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them.”) Try to Get Lost is superb travel literature. It might also be one of the best memoirs you’ll read this year.

Flights

Flights
Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead Books 2018

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The risk reward ratio can be perilous for both reader and writer when embarking on something nebulously described as a “fragmentary novel.” Flights is a win-win. Olga Tokarczuk builds her novel thematically. “Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth,” she writes. Disparate narrative pieces cohere around the theme, or constellation, of travel and dislocation. One strand tells a mystery that unfolds like an Antonioni film. A husband grows frantic when his wife and son fail to return from a morning walk during a family vacation on the Croatian island of Vis. The story line itself disappears for pages at a time while other narrative threads emerge. Later, the mystery returns with the husband searching photographic evidence for signs and clues.

flightsThere are deadpan sections of Flights outlining in utterly plausible detail an academic pursuit referred to as travel psychology, whose practitioners meet in airports for their conferences and workshops. “Practical travel psychology investigates the metaphorical meaning of places,” we’re told. Another recurring element of Flights investigates the human body itself as a landscape of infinite inward exploration. The history of phantom pain and the embalming of bodies for medical study are discussed at length. The encyclopedic flurry of anatomical and geographical info must have presented a challenge for Jennifer Croft, who translated the novel with evident eloquence from Olga Tokarczuk’s Polish. No surprise that Croft shared with Tokarczuk the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Flights. A masterful literary work that feels like a contemporary classic in the making.

Rosebud 62

Issue62Rosebud 62 has arrived! There’s much to celebrate, beginning with Tai Taeoalii, the American/Samoan artist and filmmaker whose pop art surrealism graces the front and back cover as well as appearing generously throughout the issue. “These are deep waters, in which thought and feeling morph in mysterious ways,” writes Rosebud editor Rod Clark in his interview with the artist, whose work is both fanciful and nightmarish. Just like the five winning short stories in the magazine’s sixth biennial Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award for Imaginative Fiction. Taking first place and $1,000 is Patricia Lundy’s gothic horror tale, “Nova’s Burial Club.” Lundy will disturb your sleep with sentences like this: “I found her face down at the table, her hair dipping into the meat sauces.”

Readers of Rosebud 62 are also treated to the first two chapters from a new novel, James Joyce 1906-1907: The Ambiguity of Epiphanies, by Giuseppe Cafiero, and translated from the Italian by Simon Knight. A kind of noirish psychological study of Joyce and his work, the excerpt is narrated by a private detective hired by a publisher to shadow the modernist writer whose “incorrigible arrogance and effrontery” have given birth to stories that “dwell on matters not acceptable in polite society, possibly unlawful and certainly deserving of disapproval.”

Further rounding out issue 62: poems from Lyn Lifshin (“Remembering Later it’s the Anniversary of When My Mother and Father Eloped”), Lester Graves Lennon (“Uncle Scott”), and George Eastburn (“More than Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg”); writer and cartoonist P. S. Mueller’s apocalyptic meetup with God in “The Big Shiny” (“When God spoke, he really did sound like Orson Welles bellowing into a highly amplified public address system centered in a tiled men’s room the size of an airplane hangar”); and Mike Baron’s “Trail of the Loathsome Swine,” a scabrous Southern Gothic short story uniquely tailored for the Age of Trump (“Only time I ever had any truck with ’em animal rights people was in the sixth grade, they got permission to come to our school and try to frighten the bejesus out of us with pictures of slaughterhouses and chickens in cages and such”). Oh, there’s more. So much more.

Writers take note: Also included in Rosebud 62 are the guidelines for the ninth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Creative Nonfiction. Deadline for submissions is August 15, 2017. I’m pleased to say I’ll be co-judging this year’s contest entries with editor Rod Clark.

All the News I Need

All the News I Need
Joan Frank
University of Massachusetts Press 2017

Reviewed by Bob Wake

allthenewsJoan Frank’s fourth novel, All the News I Need, winner of the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Press, is a deep dive into the heart of friendship, of memory and regret, of aging and loss. Frances Ferguson, former newspaper columnist and book reviewer, is widowed after sixteen years of marriage. She’s fifty-eight and living alone in the novel’s lushly depicted wine region of Northern California. Oliver Gaffney, retired San Francisco preschool teacher, is gay and single at sixty-two. He’s prone to fatalism and panic attacks.

Human beings getting on one another’s nerves. Joan Frank has long been a master at showing how the best among us can entertain on occasion the worst of thoughts. All the News I Need is told through vivid third-person intimate narration that toggles between Frances and Oliver. Fran and Ollie. Ollie was close friends with Fran’s late husband, Kirk. The friendship between Fran and Ollie, minus Kirk, is iffy. By Ollie’s estimation:

Fran practices survivor manners, which is to say, none. She plunks her shod feet on the dining table, laughs with a honk, swears graphically, drinks wine chased by beer from the bottle—lifted high with each swig, as if she were taking aim with a spyglass.

The centerpiece of the novel is a life-shifting excursion to Paris undertaken by Fran and Ollie at Fran’s instigation. They will visit sights she remembers from previous trips with her late husband. There will be mishaps. (“Travel beats the living shit out of you,” Fran at one point muses in italicized exhaustion.) Fran and Ollie will each have opportunities to bless one another with kindness, even share moments of transcendence, while still wondering privately what the hell is wrong with the other person. (“Ollie’s insane, but that was never exactly a revelation,” Fran tells herself.) At unexpected moments the city erupts with a kind of quotidian sensuality and grace:

They march to the Place des Vosges, through the shadowy arched entry into the pale sunlight of the square: a time-travel portal. Once through, they stop and stare. Sounds issue at them: splashing water from the fountain, echoes from the cool arcades surrounding the lawn, the demure trees: chatter, music, scents of coffee and roasting meats and fresh bread and perfume, laughter. Couples strewn on the grass, entwined, twirling strands of each other’s hair; mothers and nannies trail young charges who lurch around shrieking, arms in the air, just as they do at the park at home.

At an outdoor Paris cafe, Ollie recalls the AIDS epidemic that took so many of his friends, years during which “he kept two funeral suits in his closet.” Fran talks openly about “the targeted feeling” of sexual harrassment that “never stopped, in one form or another, until, oh, my forties.” Scenes like this give All the News I Need an unvarnished sense of what human dignity under assault looks like and feels like. The relevance is unmistakable. This is not fake news.

“Nobody gives a fuck what we saw or what we ate,” says Fran in morose anticipation of their return home. There will be redemptive and wholly satisfying surprises to come. Joan Frank has gifted us with two unforgettable characters in a novel filled to bursting with hard truths and shimmering beauty.

Tom Connor’s Gift

Tom Connor’s Gift
David Allan Cates
Bangtail Press 2014

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The time frame of David Allan Cates’s bravura new novel, Tom Connor’s Gift, covers roughly three weeks that Janine McCarthy spends alone in a Montana cabin both evading and confronting her grief over her husband Mark’s recent cancer death. Janine, a 49-year-old doctor, is in a bad way, not even certain she wants to join her two grown children for Thanksgiving back at their family farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. She’s soon drinking more than she should. Smoking cigarettes. Neglecting her appearance. The cluttered cabin begins to smell bad from piled garbage. She can’t muster the energy to name the small dog she’s acquired, simply christening him “Puppy.” Cates fashions a rich and elaborate narrative by recognizing that we are never really “alone” with grief. Memories loom large and become persistent companions. Reality takes on the heightened near-mystical quality of a waking dream.

Consider, for instance, Janine’s standoff with a bear snooping and foraging ever closer to the cabin:

I sit up in bed and turn my feet onto the floor and struggle with my boots. I suddenly remember the terrible, slow breathing of the bear through the door and remember shooting the pepper spray and it feels as if it were a dream. Did I really do that? Did I really have a bear right outside the door and still dare to open the door? Did I spray into the wind?

After all, we experienced the bear at the door too—at least we read about the bear in Janine’s own telling—and the pepper spray blowing back into Janine’s face causing acute distress to her eyes and throat. Pretty much, we’re convinced. But other times, Janine imagines seeing the bear outside in the shadows. On another occasion, the bear’s face appears at the cabin window and morphs into the smiling face of her dead husband. Despite her steely ER-tested nerves, Janine warily muses: “Do dream memories and other memories get stored in the same place? And if you forget which memory is a dream and which is a waking event, does that mean you’re insane?”

Deeply entwined with Janine’s story is the parallel narrative of the novel’s eponymous gift-giver, Tom Connor. They were briefly lovers when Janine was sixteen and Tom was twenty. Sorted into stacks on a table in the cabin are nearly one hundred and fifty letters she subsequently received from Connor—freelance journalist, frustrated novelist, drunkard—through the years. Janine doesn’t merely share many of Connor’s vivid letters with us, she struggles to contextualize them for us and for herself. The violence that Tom Connor is witness to in 1980s Central America—era of the CIA-funded Contras and the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—is unflinchingly recounted. (Cates’s work has never shied away from articulating the brutality at the heart of so much U.S. history, most notably in his powerful 2008 novel on the subject of slavery, Freeman Walker.)

David Allan Cates. Photo: Bangtail Press.

Cates is a seasoned storyteller—this is his fifth novel—and Tom Connor’s Gift is awash in stories that are by turns raucous, hair-raising, and heartfelt. The author orchestrates a series of climactic chapters that range across memory and time with breathless page-turning dramatic force. While Cates has spoken of his new novel as completing a “homecoming trilogy” begun with his well-received 1992 debut Hunger in America and 2012’s award-winning Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, each of these novels can be experienced on their own as satisfying individual works. Taken together, however, they represent a unique and eye-opening expression of epic American themes encompassing landscape and desire, love and loss, social justice and historical accountability.

Ashes and Diamonds

ashesnovel

1997 Northwestern Univ. Press edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

The 1948 Polish novel Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983) is probably less appreciated today as a literary work in its own right than as the basis for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film adaptation. The wildly entertaining movie, designated an “Essential Art House” choice in Criterion’s DVD catalog, owes more to Orson Welles’s baroque cinematic influence than Andrzejewski’s blend of socialist realism and tragic irony. Both novel and film are compact (239 pgs./103 mins.), while at the same time reflecting a panoramic near-epic cross-section of Poland’s clashing societal and political factions at the close of the Second World War. Neither the novel nor the film have escaped criticism over the years, although for different reasons.

Poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who defected from Communist Poland in 1951, wrote a scathing smackdown of his former friend Jerzy Andrzejewski in The Captive Mind (1953), the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s classic study of writers and intellectuals “adapting” themselves to totalitarian regimes. Milosz—who refers to Andrzejewski pseudonymously as “Alpha, the Moralist”—is especially tough on what he sees as pulled-punches in Ashes and Diamonds (discussed at length in The Captive Mind without mentioning the novel’s title). According to Milosz, the novelist was nicknamed “the respectable prostitute” by fellow-writers who saw Andrzejewski as a Stalinist suck-up.

ashes_diamonds_fireworks

Zbigniew Cybulski in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Film director Andrzej Wajda, in a fascinating interview included on the Ashes and Diamonds Criterion DVD, talks candidly of having initially refused to read the novel because of its state-sanctioned popularity in the 1950s. In the notes to a 2007 translation of Andrzejewski’s earlier novel, Holy Week, commentator Oscar Swan writes: “The year 1954 found Andrzejewski politically sanitizing a new edition of Ashes and Diamonds, which had become required reading in the schools.”

1980 Penguin paperback edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

1980 Penguin paperback edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

German writer Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), like Milosz a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is altogether kinder to Ashes and Diamonds in his introduction written for the 1980 Penguin “Writers from the Other Europe” paperback edition of the novel, and reprinted in the 1997 Northwestern University Press edition. Almost as an aside, Böll notes that “the reader feels” that Andrzejewski “has a sense of kinship” with the novel’s “young Socialist and Communist functionaries.”

While both the Penguin and NUP editions of Ashes and Diamonds use D. J. Walsh’s 1962 British translation (with its battle-hardened Polish adults and nihilistic teenagers alike saying “cheerio” and “bloke” and “rotter” to one another), only the NUP edition includes five pages of previously deleted text. No explanation is given as to whether this was perhaps material removed by censors or, more likely, added in later to placate censors (possibly for the 1954 “sanitized” edition). A long speech by Stefan Szczuka, the sympathetically portrayed Communist Party official marked for assassination by the Polish underground, goes on and on for a mind-numbing two full pages of Soviet-era boilerplate:

For only those truly die who believe in isolation or who serve false truths which are illusory and incompatible with the one great truth of our time. Future generations will only despise them and will blame them or condemn them to oblivion. Those people, however, who have understood the forces of history and who have been in solidarity with their comrades, will discover in the future the praise of soldiers fighting for humanity, for one’s own fatherland and for mankind, for the world order.

Wajda sharpened the book’s edges by infusing the film with the Catholic iconography of Polish nationalism and by emphasizing the charged performance of Zbigniew Cybulski as the Home Army resistance fighter tasked with assassinating Szczuka. The combined effect was a cleverly coded rebuke to the postwar Soviet control of the country. Although the movie’s striking visual metaphors have sometimes been criticized as heavy-handed, the stylistic strategy clearly succeeded in Wajda’s intended aim of circumventing Communist Party censorship.

Shotgun Lovesongs

shotgunSpent a pleasurable Sunday barnstorming through Nickolas Butler’s buzzworthy debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. My baby boomer sensibilities detected a Big Chill for Millennials familiarity to some of the material, but this was always offset by Butler’s keen eye for rural Wisconsin seasonal detail (“The October air filled with corn dust enough to make each sunset a postcard, with colors like a benign nuclear explosion”), and, above all, the novel’s clever use of the mythology that’s grown up around the music of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who shares with Butler the hometown of Eau Claire.

Nightmare Alley

nightmarealleyCopyright litigation kept Nightmare Alley (1947) out of circulation and generally unavailable for home viewing until a much-heralded DVD release in 2005. Since then, its reputation has grown from cult favorite to film noir classic. Running nearly two hours with a generous budget and A-list cast, Nightmare Alley is an anomaly for its genre (defined by crime novelist James Ellroy, in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, as “cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people”). Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power leveraged his stardom to lobby for the starring role as carny con artist Stanton Carlisle, whose sole redemptive quality is his genuine bafflement—“I wonder why I’m like that?”—as to why he’s compelled again and again to act on his most ruthless instincts. The sexual heat generated between Tyrone Power and the film’s three supporting actresses is combustible and gives Nightmare Alley its strongest jolt of noir cred: ripe-to-bursting Joan Blondell as sideshow mentalist Zeena; Coleen Gray as Molly, a.k.a. Electra, scandalous to county sheriffs because of the tin-foil two-piece she wears in her sparks-a-flying electric-chair act; and, higher up the social ladder where Stanton longs to dwell, the movie’s femme fatale, Lilith (Helen Walker), a crooked psychotherapist to the wealthy.

power:blondell2

Tyrone Power & Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley.

Even with a prestige director in Edmund Goulding, and lurid expressionistic lighting by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley was not a success. Tyrone Power subsequently returned to more conventional roles, which is a shame, because he’s clearly enjoying himself here, especially in the opening carnival scenes, all working-class T-shirt and chewing-gum and an oil-drum’s worth of pomade slicking his hair. In his early thirties at the time, Power initially seems beyond the ideal age for the role of Stan Carlisle, who is a youthful twenty-one in the first half of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel. The actor’s full-on commitment to the role, however, sells the characterization as handily as Stan’s doggedly mastered sleight-of-hand scarf and coin tricks. Power doesn’t evince a comparable set of skills in later scenes that are actually keyed closer to the actor’s age. Stan’s descent into alcoholism feels abrupt and unconvincing, in spite of our having been tipped off and conditioned to expect it. We’re meant to see parallels both to the drunken carny shill Pete Krumbein (played with aching pathos by veteran stage and silent film actor Ian Keith), whose death Stan inadvertently brings about earlier in the film, and the specter of the sideshow geek that so forcefully haunts the novel and the movie.

signet_nightmare_alley

1949 paperback edition of Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Cover art: James Avati.

The geek is a severely alcoholic freak-show performer who earns his daily allotment of booze by savagely biting off the heads of live chickens for the amusement of wide-eyed rubes. Nightmare Alley never for a moment lets us forget the addiction-addled beast that presumably resides within each of us. The geek’s frenzied delirium tremens screams echo subliminally on the soundtrack as if erupting from Stan’s unconscious during several doom-laden moments throughout the movie. Alcohol unleashes monsters in Nightmare Alley. No amount of psychological insight is adequate to quelling or even comprehending our primal depravity. Psychotherapy, like telepathy and spiritualism, is exposed here as just another con game for exploiting human weakness.

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel doesn’t waste its breath suggesting that alcoholic Pete Krumbein might have benefited from taking “the cure,” a plot point added to the movie by ace screenwriter Jules Furthman in all likelihood to soften the story’s cynicism. For every pulled punch in the script adaptation of Gresham’s still shockingly grim novel (Nick Tosches, in his 2010 intro to the reissued book, goes as far as to suggest that Gresham may have been binge drinking while writing it), there is often a compensating layer of irony or ambiguity. At the film’s finish, where viewers usually note a more hopeful outcome than in the novel, our worst expectations are momentarily overturned by a glimmer of rescue—or is it enabling?—in the downward spiral of Stan’s now nightmarish life. In our guts we all know what’s in store for Stanton Carlisle. His fate was sealed the moment he first set eyes on the geek.


Mudstone

Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

eBook Single .99

Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

Order Caffeine to Go ($2.99 on Kindle)

Cloud Spew

"A Visit of Charity" 77 Square 2007 Man Booker Prize 2010 Wisconsin Book Festival 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction 2018 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Award 2666 Absalom Absalom! Adam Gopnik Adaptation Adolf Hitler Adrienne Miller Adult World (I) Adult World (II) A Gate at the Stairs Alan Cheuse Alan Greenspan Alcoholics Anonymous Alfred Hitchcock Alison Jones Chaim Alive in Joberg Allegheny Mountains Allison Fiutak All the News I Need Al Pacino Alpha the Moralist Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself American Boy American Players Theater Amy Lou Jenkins Anchor Books And If It Be Mean Andrew Rieger Andrzej Wajda An Evening in Spring An Inventory of Lost Things Anne Donnellan Anne Enright Anne Frank Anne Lamott Anne M. Donnellan Annette O'Toole Ann Morrison Ann Prayer Ann Zindler Anthony Mann Antkind Anton Chekhov April Derleth (1954-2011) Arbor Vitae Arkham House Ashes and Diamonds Asperger's Syndrome A Theory of Lipstick At Home in the World A Tomb for Boris Davidovich August Derleth August McGinnity-Wake Autism Autism: Sensory-Movement Differences and Diversity Autism Asperger Publishing Company Avol's Bookstore B.J. Best Bad Axe Bangtail Press Barbara Buswell Barbara de Wilde Barbara Stanwyck Barry Levninson Battle of Stalingrad Baz Luhrmann Because You Have To: A Writing Life Being John Malkovich Bell Book and Candle Ben Armstrong's Strange Trip Home Ben Averill Bennett and Hastings Publishing Bernard Herrmann Bernard Schlink Big Bill Broonzy Bill of Lading Billy Strayhorn Birdman Birds of Wisconsin Blake Bailey Bob Dylan Bob Wake Bob Wake Goes on a Cruise Bon Iver Bonnie Friedman Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It Botteghe Oscure Bret Easton Ellis Brett Alan Sanders Brian Eno Brian Johnson Brief Interviews with Hideous Men Bruce Bodden Bruce Dethlefsen Buck Henry Burbank Byron Lindsey Cabin Boy Caffeine & Other Stories Calamity Song California Cambridge-Rockdale Wisconsin Cambridge Book Review Cambridge Book Review Press Cambridge Wisconsin Carol Quirk Cassandra Wilson Catch-22 Cathryn Cofell Cat People (1942) Cat People (1982) CBR Press Centennial Press Charles Baxter Charles Nevsimal Charlie Kaufman Chelsea Cardinal Chicago Sun-Times Chicago Tribune China's ghost towns Chris Ellery Chris Elliot Chris Hartsfield Chris Lott Christopher Nolan Citizen Kane Civil Rights Clark Street Rag Coleen Gray Coleman Colin Meloy Colony Collapse Press Common Ground Communist Poland Connie Lyle O'Brien Consultation Correcting the Landscape Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook Council for Wisconsin Writers Cowfeather Press coyote mythology Criterion DVD Czeslaw Milosz D.T. Max Dale M. Kushner Daniel Berrigan Daniel Craig Daniel Fuchs Danilo Kiš Dan Parent Dark Card Darth Vader Dave & Phil Alvin Dave Eggers David Allan Cates David Bowie David Carr David Foster Wallace David Hidalgo David Hill David Koch David Letterman David Lipsky David Mamet David Pitonyak Debbie Googe Deborah Eisenberg Deference Del's Supper Club Demilitarized Zone Denis Johnson Dennis Graham Associates Derek Almstead Derrick Harriell Detour DeWitt Bodeen DFW RIP Diana Krall Dierdre Luzwick Disability Studies Quarterly District 9 Dmitri Shostakovich Dorothy Malone Double Indemnity Doug Moe Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro draft resistance DREAM Act Driftless Area Duke Ellington Dwight Allen Eau Claire Wisconsin ebook ebooks Echoes economics econophysics Ed Begley Jr. Edenfred Edgar Allan Poe Edgar G. Ulmer Edmund G. Bansak Edmund Goulding Edmund Wilson Edna O’Brien Edward G. Robinson Eighth String Quartet (Opus 110) Elegy Elf Power Elia Kazan Elie Wiesel Eli Roth Elizabeth Strout Ellendea Proffer Elli Hazit Elmore Leonard Elsa Morante Emily Dickinson Eric Harris Erik Richardson Ernest Hemingway Eschaton Esquire Magazine essays Ester Republic Press Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Eudora Welty Eugenio Montale Europe Central Evan Williams Every Love Story is a Ghost Story Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open-Air Parenting Everything Ravaged Everything Burned F.J. Bergmann F. Scott Fitzgerald Fabu Facebook ads Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career female jazz vocalists Film Noir Finishing Line Press Fireweed Press Fisherman's Beach Fisherman's Beach ebook Flight Patterns Flights For No One Fox 8: A Story Frances Kroll Ring Francis Kroll Ring Frank McCourt François Truffaut Fred MacMurray Freedom Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Freeman Walker Friedrich Nietzsche From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity Future Islands Fyodor Dostoyevsky Gail Godwin Gangnam Style Gay Davidson-Zielske Geoffrey Chaucer George Eastburn George Romero George Saunders George V. Higgins George Vukelich Georgia Ressmeyer Gerald Fosdal Geri Schrab Gerrit Welmers Ghosts in the Library Giorgio Moroder Giuseppe Cafiero Given These Magics God/Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World Go Down Moses Golden Bloom Goldmine in the Sun Goodbye to Language Graphic Classics Gregory Peck Greta Gerwig Halloween Hansa Kerman Pistotnik Harold Pinter Harper's Harvard University Press Heinrich Böll Helen P. Burlingame Helen Walker Henri-Pierre Roché Henry James Herbert Lovett Hieronymus Bosch High Noon Saloon Hitchcock Holden Caulfield Holy Week horror short stories Houdini Pie How Cow Press Hugging the Shore Hunger in America Ian Fleming Ian Keith Ian Murphy Icarus Himself Ida Lupino If I Could Tell You immigration policy Incarnations of Burned Children Inception In Envy Country Infinite Jest Inglourious Basterds Ingmar Bergman Inherent Vice Inside Outside Morningside Interior States In the Aeroplane Over the Sea In the Land of Men Irish literature J. Allen Kirsch J. D. Salinger Jacket Copy Jack Lehman Jack Nicholson Jacques Tourneur Jaimy Gordon James Avati James Bond James Brown James Dante James Ellroy James Joyce James P. Roberts James Roberts James Sedwards Jane Smiley Jason A. Smith Jason Epstein Jason Smith Jay McInerney Jayne Anne Phillips Jean-Luc Godard Jean-Luc Marion Jeff Bridges Jeff Esterholm Jeff Mangum Jennifer Arin Jennifer Croft Jeremy Irons Jeri McCormick Jerzy Andrzejewski Jesus' Son Jet Airliner Jimmy Hughes Jim Somers Jim Stevens Joan Bennett Joan Blondell Joan Frank Jodi Robledo Joel Weisman John Berryman John Cheever John Donne John Heard John Irving John Koethe John Lehman Johnny Hartman John O'Brien John Singer Sargent John Smelcer John Tuschen John Updike Jonathan Franzen Jonathan Regier Joseph H. Lewis Josh Cohen José Ángel Valente Joyce Maynard Judd Apatow Judge Judy Endow Jules and Jim Jules Furthman Junkie Nurse Justin Vernon Kamil Vojnar Kane County Illinois Republican Party Karla Huston Karl Elder Kate MacDonald Kate McGinnity Kate Winslat Kate Winslet Katherine Anne Porter Katherine Baker Kathy Kaebisch Kathy Sherwood Katjusa Cisar Katz Drug Store lunch-counter sit-in Keats Kenneth Slawenski Kim Garcia Kim Novak Kindle Kindle ebook Kloppenburg Korea Kristine Rusch Kurt Vonnegut Kyle Harper L. A. Times Laird Cregar Langston Hughes Larry Cyr Larry Watson Last Call Late Show with David Letterman Launchpad Laura Carter Lawrence Ferlinghetti Learning to Listen Ledgers of History Lee Garmes Lee Jing-Jing Lester Graves Lennon Lester Smith Lights! Camera! Autism! Lights! Camera! Autism! 2 Like a Cannonball Lillian Ross Linda Aschbrenner Linda Darnell Linda Lenzke Lindsay Lohan Lisa Ladson Lisa Pankratz literary contest Little Creek Press Little Eagle Press Local 311 Pipes & Drums Lon Chaney Jr. Look at the Birdie Lord of Misrule Lorine Niedecker Lorna Stevens Lorrie Moore Love and Theft Lucas Bielijewski Lyn Lifshin Madame Sul-Te-Wan Madison Madison 3/10/11 Madison Magazine Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Madison Wisconsin Madison Wisconsin protests Mahlon Mitchell Maile Meloy Main Street Rag Main Street Rag Publishing Co. Make it Stay Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism's Helpers Malcolm Lowry Malcolm McDowell Man Booker International Prize March 19 2011 Maria Rosa Lojo Marie Mundaca Marjorie Kowalski Cole Marshall Cavendish Editions Martha Leary Martin Amis Martin Scorsese Martin Sisters Publishing Mary C. Schuh Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction Matt Girard Matthew J. Bruccoli Max Garland Mayapple Press Medium Meghan O'Gieblyn Members of Each Other Men without Meaning Metamorphoses Michael Epstein Michael Kriesel Michael Lowry Michael Pietsch Michael Sheehan Middle English Miguel de Unamuno Mike Baron Milkweed Editions Mobius Modern Times Mom's Canoe Money Monroe Stahr Montana 1948 Mort Castle My Bloody Valentine My Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering my FBI file NAACP Nancy Jesse Nancy Zucker Nan Negri Nastassja Kinski National Book Award 2005 Native American folklore Neill Blomkamp Neil Young Neutral Milk Hotel Neutral Uke Hotel New York Times Nicholas Gulig Nickolas Butler Nick Tosches Nick Whetro Nicole Eredics Nightmare Alley Night of the Living Dead Nikolay Middle School Noon Wine Norbert Blei Norma Gay Prewett Norman Mailer North Country Notebook North Country Press Northwestern University Press Nothrop Frye Nutcracker Suite Oh Comely Olga Tokarczuk Olive Kitteridge online fiction Origins of FIS (Factory in a Suitcase) Orphan Orson Welles Oscar Swan Our Lives Ouroboros symbolism Ovid P.S. Mueller Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated Paradise Drive Parallel Press Parnell Nelson Passionate Nomads Patricia LeBon Herb Patricia Lundy Patty Berglund Paula Anderson Paula Kluth Paul Bowles Pauline Kael Paul McCartney Paul Michel Paul Schrader Paul Soglin Pencil Test Penelope Cruz Penguin paperback Peter Biskind Peter Yates Philip K. Dick Philip Roth Poetry Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf Polyester Popcorn Press Prairie du Sac Prairie Fire Poetry Quartet Press 53 Prince Myshkin Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned Psalms public housing Publishing: The Revolutionary Future Quentin Tarantino Quiet Nights Quiver Raging Bull (1980) Rain Man Ralph Murre Raskolnikov Raw Deal Ray Bradbury Raymond Carver Raymond Chandler Rebecca Foust Rebecca Williams Recall Red Dragonfly Press Redshift: Greenstreem Regal House Publishing Return to Walden West Revolutionary Road Revolver Richard Ford Richard Katz Richard Quine Richard Roe Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction Richard Widmark Richard Yates Rick Geary Riverhead Books River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize RKO Robert Bly Robert De Niro Robert Fripp Robert Mitchum Robert Musil Roberto Bolaño Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize Robert Zoschke Robin Chapman Rob Thomas Rock 'n' Roll Consciousness Rod Clark Rogers Street Fishing Village & Museum Rolling Stone Rosalyn Coleman Gilchrist Rosebud Rosebud 51 Rosebud 62 Rosebud Book Reviews Rosebud Magazine Royal Trux Ruben Varda Ruby Dee Rush Limbaugh Sac Prairie Sacramento Sally Wolff-King Salman Rushdie Salvador Dali Sam Spiegel Samuel Beckett Samuel Herring Sarabande Books Sarah Busse Satellite Collective Satellite Press saturated phenomena Sauk City Sauk City Wisconsin sci-fi science fiction Sean Connery Sebastian Barry Seoul Sharlto Copley Sharon Hammer Shawn Fogel Sheldon Roth Shirley Hazzard short stories short story Shoshauna Shy Shotgun Lovesongs Shrine of the Tooth Fairy siege of Leningrad Sietske van der Veen Signs and Wonders Simone Simon Simon Knight Singapore Six Gallery Press Slumdog Millionaire Sly in the Morning Somewhere Piano Sonic Youth Soviet Communism Spencer Walts Spiro Agnew Split Personality Spoke Spring Green Spring Green Wisconsin St. Martin's Press Stefan Szczuka Stephanie Bedford Stephen Greenblatt Stephen Hinkle Stephen King Steve Erickson Steve Miller Band Steven Salmon Steve Shelley Stranger in the Window suitcase nuclear reactor Summer of the Cinetherapist sunnyoutside Supermoon Susan Firer suspended animation Sven Birkerts Swan Scythe Press SXSW Tai Taeoalii Tama Janowitz Tamar Jacobsohn Taxi Driver (1976) Tchaikovsky Tell-Tale Camera Telling Time Temple Grandin Tenth of December Texas Review Press Tex Avery Thaisa Frank the 99 percent The Atlantic Monthly The Bagheeta The Best Day The Big Combo The Big Lebowski The Birds The Blasters The Broom of the System The Burning Monk The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari The Cambridge News The Capital Times The Captive Mind The Catcher in the Rye The Comedy of Errors The Conditions of Love The Corrections The Crack-Up The Curious Case of Benjamin Button The Decemberists The Dream Songs The Dude The Dying Animal the eelgrass meadow The Exchange & Other Stories The Frequency The Friends of Eddie Coyle The G.O.D. Club The Gathering The Gift of the Magi The Graduate The Great Gatsby The Green Suit The Hazards of Love The Humbling The Hungry Dead The Idiot The Last Tycoon The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western The Macomber Affair The Magnificent Ambersons The Masturbator The Motion Sick The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan The National Lampoon The New Yorker The New York Review of Books The Outlook for Earthlings The Pale King The Pat Hobby Stories The Permanent Press The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart The Reader The Second Pass The Secret Scripture The Sheltering Sky The Shield of the Valiant The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber The Silent Witness The Taking Under The Tiger's Wedding The Typewriter Satyr The Unexploded Ordnance Bin The Village Poet The Wolf Man (1940) The Writer's Cave Thich Nhat Hanh Thomas Christensen Thomas Eakins Thomas Fuchs Thomas J. King Thomas Merton Thomas Pynchon Three Years from Upstate Thurston Moore Time Out of Mind Tim Jonze Tim van der Meer Tim Ware Tippi Hedren Together Through Life Tom Connor's Gift Tom Pomplun Tom Sawyer Tracy Walczak transgender Tree of Smoke Trimalchio: An Early Version of the Great Gatsby Try to Get Lost Twitter Two English Girls Two Rivers Wisconsin Ty-D-Bol Blue Tyrone Power UK Guardian Un Chien Andalou Under the Volcano Unexpected Shiny Things University of Massachusetts Press University of New Mexico Press University of Notre Dame Press University of Wisconsin Press Until I Find You Up in the Air Ursula Le Guin UW Bookstore Hilldale Val Lewton Vampyr Verse Vera Farmiga Verse Wisconsin Vertigo Vicky Cristina Barcelona Victory Lap video technology Vietnam War Vincent Van Gogh Vote Kloppenburg for Wisconsin Supreme Court April 5 2011 W.E.B. Du Bois Wag the Dog Walden West Walk Awhile in My Autism Walter Benjamin Walter Berglund Weird Tales Wells Tower Wendy Vardaman Weshoyot Alvitre What's Up With Your Brother? What Did Jesus Do? Where You're All Going Wiggle Room wiki for Infinite Jest Wikus van der Merwe Will Blythe William Cashion William Faulkner William Lindsay Gresham William Maxwell William T. Vollmann Wisconsin Wisconsin Book Festival Wisconsin labor protests Wisconsin literature Wisconsin People & Ideas Wisconsin People & Ideas 2017 Writing Contest Wisconsin poetry Wisconsin politics Wisconsin State Journal Wisconsin writing Writers from the Other Europe WTDY X.J. Kennedy Award X. J. Kennedy Award for Creative Nonfiction Yellow Sky Yuma fourteen Yuri Trifonov Zapruder film Zbigniew Cybulski Zora Neale Hurston