Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“... we come like a breath of wind over the fields of morning.
We go like a lamp flame caught by a blast from a darkened window.
In between we journey from table to table, from bottle to bottle, from bed to bed.
We suck, we chew, we swallow, we lick, we try to mash life into us like an am-am-amoeba …” (page 242-3)
Nightmare Alley (1946) is set in a carny where Stan Carlisle works.
The book is structured in twenty-two chapters, the same number of the Major Arcana: they are the Tarot cards used by the fortune-teller. Each chapter is named from the name of the cards. Gresham does not follow the order of the Major Arcana, but shuffles the deck, following an order bonded to Stan’s life.
In the first pages Stan is staring at a geek, a ‘wild man’ in a carny who bites the heads off live chickens.
The young Stan wants to leave behind himself, in every way, this way of life symbolically shown by the geek.
Stan is a pride man as well described in the following passage: “How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths.” (page 59)
Stan begins his social climbing by seducing the fortuneteller Zeena. His objective is to learn Zeena’s secrets of a mind-reading system. When Stan becomes master of the mind-reading, he leaves Zeena and escapes with Molly, another girl of the carny.
Stan’s pride helps him to become The Great Stanton: admired as the sun (the Tarot’s card: “The Sun: On a white horse the sun child, with flame for hair, carries the banner of life.” (page 115)
Stan’s performances introduce him in the high society, where, with the help of another woman, a psychologist, Stan tries to fool an industrialist ‘resurrecting’ his girlfriend.
But as always the sun burns if you are too close to it: Stan’s nightmare, every day the same, becomes reality: “To the left was an alley, dark, but with a light at the other end of it. … And behind him the heavy splat of shoes on cobbles. He raced toward the light at the end of the alley, but there was nothing to be afraid of. He had always been here, running down the alley and it didn’t matter; this was all there was any time, anywhere, just an alley and a light and the footsteps spanging on the cobbles but they never catch you, they never catch you, they never catch you …” (page 259)
Stan becomes aware of the impossibility to change his destiny: the geek, the nightmare, are always at the end of the alley, waiting for him.
The web surrounding Stan is built with feel of guilt, pride, and uncontrollable desire to repeat, endless, the same nightmare in the same alley.
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