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Nightmare Alley

Image courtesy of Criterion Collection

‘Let me tell you something, kid. In the carny you don’t ask nothing. And you’ll get told no lies.’ – Nightmare Alley

Noir afficionados, including this one, are greeting the release of director Guillermo del Toro’s film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley with rapture. Crime fiction writer and noir scholar Megan Abbott tweeted: ‘As a lover of both the original novel and movie, @RealGDT’s sumptuous remake is irresistible…’. TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller called it ‘extremely faithful’ to the novel’s ‘world view’ and ‘truly a color film noir.’ Bonus for purists (at least those resident in Los Angeles): a black and white version of the film will have a limited theatrical release in January, according to the Deadline site. 

While I haven’t yet seen the 2021 picture, I’m a big fan of the novel and of the 1947 screen adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. That version, however, traded the book’s dark ending for a ray of hope, at the insistence of studio boss Darryl Zanuck.[1] In this writer’s opinion, such a change (while not uncommon in adaptations), violates one of the cardinal rules of noir: there are no happy endings. Another is that the characters, while believing themselves to be in control of their destinies, operate in a world subject to the capricious laws of fate.

Gresham embraced—and, indeed, helped to shape—that aspect of literary noir, structuring his novel on the trump cards in the tarot deck, which he uses to introduce each chapter. He begins Nightmare Alley with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: ‘Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, Which is blank, is something he carries on his back, Which I am forbidden to see.’ To drive the point home, Gresham warns the reader by entitling the first chapter ‘The Fool’: ‘who walks in motley, with his eyes closed, over a precipice at the end of the world.’ But, like hapless noir protagonists, readers are by nature driven by hope (or else why read to the end?), rooting for the hero—or anti-hero—to triumph, for the villain to be punished, for a moving, entertaining or instructive tale. Nightmare Alley promises all of these but delivers its own funhouse version, along with a gritty tour of the noir universe of venality and lust, high hopes and low impulses, compulsion and despair, which, as readers (or voyeurs), we can safely experience from the front row.

Set in the topsy-turvy world of the carnival, Nightmare Alley is a story about a con artist who preys on people’s hopes and cashes in on their weaknesses. But carny folk aren’t all cold-hearted operators, or at least not when off duty. Some of Gresham’s cast of fortune tellers, strongmen, acrobats, geeks and freaks are sympathetic, welcoming the book’s protagonist, Stan Carlisle, when he has nowhere else to go, and showing him the proverbial ropes. At the Ten-in-One show, Stan finds a family of sorts, one that, in true grifter form, he will betray. He takes up with the show’s astrologist, Madame Zeena, who schools him in mind reading, a clairvoyant act helped along by coded questions and a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and in the arcana of the tarot. He soon outgrows her tutelage and joins forces with ingénue Molly Cahill, formerly ‘Mamzelle Electra’, and the duo take their show on the road as headliners, drawing a well-heeled society audience with a spiritualist act.

But Stan’s inner demons, including a thirst for liquor, are soon unleashed by his amorality and greed. He dumps Molly for Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist and a suitable siren for Gresham’s modernist novel. Stan thinks he’s using her to exploit her patients’ darkest secrets, but in true femme fatale fashion, she’s a hustler too, playing Stan as relentlessly as T.S. Eliot’s ‘Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,’ must have played her marks. As deftly as a carnival barker on the midway, Gresham has conjured us into his world, palming our price of admission for a ticket to guess what happens in the end. Astute observers of human nature may believe they already know. Reader, could that be you?

‘This book formerly sold for a dollar, but for today I’m going to let you have it for two bits—a quarter of a dollar. Let’s hurry it up, folks, because I know you all want to see and hear Madam Zeena, the seeress, and her act does not go on until everyone who wants one of these great books gets one. Thank you, sir. And you. Any more?’

—post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] Carl Macek et al., Film Noir : An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1992).

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This Golden Land

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Perhaps nowhere is the dream and myth of immigration so potent as in America, the Golden Land, Di Goldene Medine, as it was called by the Eastern European Jews who migrated there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the beginning, America declared itself a country of immigrants, our national motto E pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one.’ In New York Harbor, those who entered by way of Ellis Island (which would process over twelve million immigrants in its history) were greeted at the end of their arduous journey by the Statue of Liberty:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’[1]

But as David Schearl experiences in Henry Roth’s 1934 semi-autobiographical novel, Call It Sleep, about a Jewish immigrant family arriving in New York City in 1907, the difficulty of the journey doesn’t end there. Lady Liberty may be welcoming, but she is also forbidding:

And before them, rising on her high pedestal from the scaling swarmy brilliance of sunlit water to the west, Liberty. The spinning disk of the late afternoon sun slanted behind her, and to those on board who gazed, her features were charred with shadow, her depths exhausted, her masses ironed to one single plane. Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword.

There may be opportunity in this Golden Land, but there is also the crucible of assimilating in America’s melting pot, of honoring the old customs while adjusting to the new. In the young protagonist’s case, there is the additional trial of forming an identity separate from his beloved mother and violent father, of negotiating the rough, poor environs of New York’s Lower East Side. As a New York Times reviewer put it: ‘Quarrelsome grown‐ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat‐infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David’s father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail.’

It’s the child’s eye view that is so consuming and alive in this book, a tour de force narration from the perspective of eight-year-old David. The author uses a striking multi-lingual technique which replicates (in English) the different languages that signify the boy’s divided world. At home, his parents speak an eloquent and expressive Yiddish; on the street, with its clash of cultures, Roth employs a pungent immigrant patois. His characters and the Schearl’s New York City environs are vividly drawn. This impressionistic journey of a boy trying to make sense of an adult world, of the safety and restraints of tradition, of what happens when the ‘huddled masses’ are pressed together in dire conditions yet manage, somehow, to thrive in a tarnished Golden Land, is unforgettable. As David’s mother says to the rabbi: ‘[A]s for learning what it means to be a Jew, I think he knows how hard that is already.’ 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Where Call It Sleep creates a world from two years of an immigrant family’s life on a New York City block, Annie Proulx’s sweeping epic Barkskins, published in 2016, spans three centuries and the North American continent, with stops in Europe, Asia and Australia, beginning in New France in 1693. Proulx writes of a different kind of immigrant encounter: that of the natural world with the European settlers who would explore, extract, exploit and ultimately destroy it. These first encounters were not auspicious for the indigenous tribes living and hunting in the vast forests, attuned to and stewards of the trees’ interconnected web of life, nor for the forests themselves, which were uprooted, cut, burned and cleared to satisfy the new inhabitants’ bottomless thirst for land and lumber. 

René Sel and Charles Duquet (later Anglicized as Duke) came to the forests of what is now Canada as indentured laborers (habitants) meant to clear and populate New France. Their new seigneur lays down the settler’s manifesto early on: ‘Men must change this land in order to live in it.’ Sel will marry an indigenous Mi’kmaq woman and raise a métis (mixed blood) family on his land grant. Charles Duquet will become a lumber baron, his descendants the owners and extractors of forests that René Sel’s descendants will log.

The rising and sinking fortunes of each family will mirror the rise of the French and English colonies and the new United States as they consume what they believe to be limitless forests, displacing the indigenous tribes who have no cultural conception of ownership. The tribes will be forced to adapt to the white man’s ways in order to survive. Like Roth, Proulx uses a multilingual technique to convey her characters’ divided worlds, adding liberal spatters of French, Dutch and Mi’kmaq to flavor the narrative. Their lives are often cut short by disease, violence, drowning, fire, and logging accidents. But it’s the forests whose ebbing life is chronicled here that are the living heart of Barkskins. Proulx’s book is a cri de cœur for a dying ecosystem.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] From The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883).

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Book Review: Wonder Woman – Ambassador of Truth

By Danielle Prostrollo

“As lovely as Aphrodite—as wise as Athena—with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules—she is known only as Wonder Woman, but who she is, or whence she came, nobody knows!”—All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941-January 1942)

wonderwoman

New in the collection at the Memorial Library is a new Wonder Woman compilation. The hardback details the history of the character and follows each of her incarnations – from her first appearance in Action Comics, the Lynda Carter’s TV series, multiple animated series, and the recent feature film as well as beautiful photograph and several inserts, reproductions of Amazonian ephemera, as well as interviews with people key to the story of Diana Prince.

This book will appeal to all readers – young and old, those new to the Wonder Woman story and those who have followed her for years. It is easy to take several passes through this book in short order, page through for the photographs, again for the interviews and footnotes, and a third time to take in the great written history. At 175 pages you’ll fly through the book as if it takes no time at all.

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Uncle Sam’s Roots in Eastern England

By Danielle Prostrollo

9781898015284

East Anglia’s Norfolk connections to America are well documented, and the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library maintains a blog devoted to exactly that. Some of the most famous are facts such as, Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Heacham’s John Rolfe married Native American Pocahontas, and Abraham Lincoln’s ancestral home is in Hingham. But these are only the start of Colonial America’s reliance on the area for its good… and bad!

In the book Uncle Sam’s Roots in Eastern England: From Colonial Times Onwards by Roger Pugh, many of the lesser-known connections are discussed including the following:

Ancestral home of President Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge’s ancestors John and Mary were from Cottonham, Cambridgeshire. John Coolidge employed an economy of words similar to that which his famous descendant, Calvin, is known for. In the book, Pugh says that John once replied to an invitation: “Dear Gentlemen.  Can’t come. Thank you.” The Coolidges travelled to Massachusetts in 1630.

Harley-Davidson Motorbikes
William S. Harley, one half of the famous motorcycle brand, was born to parents William and Mary of Littleport, Cambridgeshire. So while Milwaukee, Wisconsin lays claim to being the home of Harley-Davidson, it is from Littleport that the Harley family came!

The Girls from Great Yarmouth and the Witches of Salem
Mary and Rebecca Towne, born in Great Yarmouth to William and Joanna Towne, are two of the many women who were tried for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Their sister Sarah, also born to William and Joanna, was born in Salem and eventually tried for witchcraft. Mary and Rebecca would be found guilty and eventually executed while Sarah eventually gained her freedom after the guilty verdict.

 

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To find out more about the East Anglia connection to America, check out Roger Pugh’s book at the Memorial Library or visit our (other) blog!

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