Nightmare Alley, book review

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, is a 1946 novel that revolves around carny-turned-charlatan Stanton Carlisle and his rise in the ‘spook’ racket, that is to say, spiritualism. The story starts well; the first chapter begins by painting an indelible image of a sideshow geek in a traveling carnival. This is followed by the thoughts of the other acts in the ‘ten-in-one,’ the strongman, a dwarf, the tattooed man, etc., as a crowd shuffles by. One of these sideshow acts is Stan Carlisle, a young man who does magic tricks, but longs for something bigger and better. By cozying up to slightly older carny Zeena, who does a mentalist act, Stan learns the tricks of her trade, including the use of codes and how to cold read.

Eventually, Stan leaves the carnival and performs his own mentalist act with assistant Molly, who left the sideshow with him. He soon segues into spiritualism, targeting wealthier marks, even getting ordained as a minister to enhance his ‘legitimacy.’ Stan starts to fall apart, however, and he seeks the help of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter. And that’s where I gave up, about two-thirds in.

I liked the beginning of the book, set in the carnival with its interesting cast of characters. For some reason, I especially liked Joe Plasky and wanted to know more about him. It was obvious that Tod Browning’s Freaks had some influence on the book. If you’ve seen the movie, you can’t get it out of your mind as you read the early chapters. That’s a bit of a detriment, but at the time the book was published, I don’t think many people were familiar with the film. The slang terms used by the characters, and their dialogue in general, had a good authentic feel. Regrettably, though, the deeper I got into the book, the less interested I became.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t have a clear sense of when the story was taking place, sometime between 1920 and 1940? The story would jump ahead or go back in the past, but not having any kind of anchor to know when the present day events are taking place left me a bit adrift, time-wise. Just mention a year, for some kind of reference. I felt the flashbacks to Stan’s childhood tended to run too long, but that was probably because I figured out his main issue right off the bat during the first trip down memory lane, when he sneaked into his mother’s room and buried his face in her pillow while she was splish-splash takin’ a bath. The domestic drama of Stan’s parents was more involving than his Oedipus complex. Oops, did I spoil that? Too bad. I pegged it right off the bat on page 96, I didn’t need to see Stan lose his shit at a manipulative shrink’s office on page 169 when she confronted him about wanting to bed Mommy.

The backstory for Molly was also a bit strange, somewhat disjointed and with an odd vibe. I think the author just didn’t quite know how to convey the memories of a young woman about facing the world alone with her showbiz father.  Stan’s first cold read, of an old southern sheriff threatening to shut down the sideshow and arrest Molly for indecency (she wears a sparkly leotard for her Electric Girl act) is too long by half. And repetitive. In fact, Stan himself thinks, I need to end this, before I lose him. Yet he keeps talking. And talking…and talking, and it’s the same thing over and over. Again, maybe the purpose was to educate the reader on how cold reading and codes worked in mind reading acts. I’m aware of all that already, so the longer it went on, the more aggravating it became, and I had a hard time believing the ‘mark’ didn’t wise up. I had a similar complaint once Stan stepped it up to spiritualism and the tricks mediums use in séances was revealed. In great detail. It was the forays into details that bogged down the book’s pacing for me.

Freaks came to mind during the carnival chapters. Houdini did when Stan began his mind reading and séance schtick. After Stan became a phony minister, horrible, repressed memories of Elmer Gantry surfaced (satire my ass), a book and character I loathe so intensely, no words exist to describe my ire and hatred, may the gods rot Sinclair Lewis’ talent deficient soul (the Burt Lancaster movie is pretty good though). By the time shrink Lilith Ritter shows up, who, quite frankly, seems more than a tad unbelievable, I gave up. Not to mention, every time I saw her name, I thought of the great character actress from back in the day, Thelma Ritter. And another fictional psychiatrist, Lilith Sternin (possibly inspired by the novel).

I wanted to like this book and I wish I had, but Stan Carlisle is unlikable, boring, irritating, and selfish, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I couldn’t connect with him. It’s not a good thing when you lose a reader with a wholly unsympathetic main character. It wasn’t because I need to have rainbows and roses; I like darker stories and characters. I kept slogging longer than I wanted to in the hopes of seeing the carny folk again, they were far more interesting. They showed up, briefly, in a later chapter, but nothing came of it. They do reappear later on, but Gresham had lost me by then. As for Stan, I didn’t give a good goddamn what his childhood issues were or what happened to him. I will say that what eventually befalls him is fitting, couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. If you’re the schadenfreude type, you’ll love it. I know the ending from the movie and, honestly, I thought it would be better in the book; it’s not (I jumped to the end and it was anti-climactic).

You may want to give Nightmare Alley a shot. There are good moments and some interesting supporting characters, but that wasn’t enough to draw me across the finish line. I’ll keep it on my shelf, though, and may try reading it again someday.

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