Tuesday, July 7, 2009

'Red Lights' Takes You 'Into the Tunnel'

Review: RED LIGHTS (New York Review Books Classics 2006)
Author, Georges Simenon

Although he is most famous for creating the character Inspector Maigret, Georges Simenon dabbled in a particularly dark form of fiction called romans durs. (I would have just called it noir, but what do I know?) According to Anita Brookner's introduction to RED LIGHTS, Simenon's romans durs followed a simple formula: "A life will go wrong, usually because of an element in the protagonist's make-up which impels him to self-destruct, to willfully seek disgrace, exclusion, ruin in his search for a fulfillment and a fatal freedom which take on an aura of destiny."

Pretty highfalutin words, huh? (Still sounds like noir to me.) Well, let me tell you about the story and put it in more concrete terms. It all starts when Steve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, head out from New York City to Maine to pick up their children from summer camp. Steve has a few to drink before he hits the road (much to Nancy's dismay), then has a few more on the way. The more Steve drinks, the more pissed Nancy gets. And the more pissed Nancy gets, the more Steve tries to assert himself--by drinking (what else?).

At some point, Steve does something he calls "going into the tunnel"--sort of like heading down a dark road that you know is the wrong way, but you can't turn back.

Eventually, Nancy gets so angry when Steve stops to drink, she just leaves while he's in the bar. Walks off into the night to catch a bus to Maine--or so Steve thinks.

Things get a bit more complicated for Steve, when he finds an escaped convict hiding in his car. Sid Halligan seems to represent something admirable to Steve--a complete disrespect for authority and ordinary living that Steve aspires to (at least, while he's drunk).

I don't have to tell you that this misplaced admiration doesn't make Steve's life any easier, do I? In fact, his alliance with Halligan has consequences--dire ones and not just for Steve.

Simenon wrote with great attention to detail, exploring Steve's psychology right from the get-go. He perfectly captures Steve's self-delusion and self-justification for drinking, even as he describes his increasingly intoxicated state.

He also explores nuances of character, as expressed in a look or vocal intonation--or Steve's perception of it, anyway. And as Steve blunders through his perilous journey, Simenon throws in various observations--some wry, some wretched, some funny--sometimes a combination. When you catch yourself laughing at something that's kind of sad, you know you're reading an interesting book.

Further, Steve is infused with a kind of existential angst. (Hey, Simenon was French. What did you expect?) He's plagued by lots of "meaning of life" and identity questions. But these matters make for anything but dry reading. Simenon had a natural way of insinuating those themes in his writing--maybe because they were so much a part of his own life. (I'm taking some cues from Brookner's intro here.)

The book also reflects the mentality of its time (originally, the mid-1950s) in more ways than one, and particularly about a certain subject that I can't discuss, because that would be telling. Even so, it stands up to the test of time due in great part to its remarkably intelligent and entertaining prose.

The story builds up to a tension-filled climax--a kind of psychological showdown--that brings things to an odd sort of closure. For a noir story, it ends on an unusual note of hope and that in itself sets this book apart from other noir tales. It's the hope that people can change, that they can learn from experience, keep to the "straight and narrow" and not be led astray again--back "into the tunnel."

All those concepts--straight and narrow, normality, conformity--Steve's struggle against them and ultimate desire to embrace them, seem quintessentially existential and the bleakness of the tale is decidedly noirish. But that ray of hope--okay, so maybe the book is something other than noir.

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