Sunday, May 15, 2005

Nightmare Alley

How about this for a summer read? Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham was published in 1946. It was controversial, shocking, and unforgettable. The dark tale of carnival life in the United States was boosted to even more notoriety when the movie appeared in 1947 starring, in a role strictly against type, Tyrone Power, fresh off his huge success in The Razor's Edge. The novel became a cult classic and when The Library of America collected books for its Crime Novels series, Nightmare Alley appeared in the volume American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s, right along such quintessential American Literature as The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Horace McCoy), and I Married a Dead Man (Cornell Woolrich).

The book tells the story of Stan Carlisle, a man who rises to the pinnacle of con man success as the Great Stanton, magician and mentalist, and then falls to the depths of depravity, degradation and "geekdom." What more could you ask for in the good ole summertime? Those traveling carny shows come around every summer and this is a great way to celebrate the side show life.

The version of the book for the summer is the 2003 graphic novel adaptation by Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez. The renowned underground comics artist is probably best-known for his Trashman comics, but his adapatation of Gresham's novel is right on the mark. Gresham's sordid and doomed portrayal of the "American dream" finds a fitting home in Rodriguez's detailed and crisp artwork, almost too much for the reader to soak in all at once. I found out on this website that Rodriguez was born in 1940 in Mexico, grew up in Buffalo, NY, and in the 1960s hung out with R. Crumb and other underground comic artists in San Francisco. According to the Introduction to the graphic novel, Rodriguez spent seven years working on the adaptation, on and off. The book was published by Fantagraphics Books, which also publishes Los Bros Hernandez.