Top critical review
A Genuine Nightmare
Reviewed in the United States on February 8, 2012
I know it is of questionable relevance, but I'm fascinated by the fact that Gresham was at one point married to Joy Davidman.I kept thinking of the two portrayals I'd seen of her in SHADOWLANDS and thought to myself,this guy was married to the future Mrs. C.S. Lewis !If you read NIGHTMARE ALLEY I think you'll see my point.
This is a chilly novel that revels in corruption.It centers around Stan Carlisle who is one of the more contemptible characters I've run into in quite some time.Utterly self centered , Stan is a debased self pitying conman who has a touch of genius.He would have made a first rate politician or salesman.As it stands , he almost pulls off his big score and could probably snap back from his failure but for his neurotic lack of self control. Stan's adventures among the carny's, con men and lowlifes of 1920's and 1930's America offer a glimpse into a dead world that it is hard to believe ever existed but I'm persuaded it did.Lowlife has evolved since then.If you want a partial refutation of the notion that those were more innocent times, you'll find it right here.I also enjoyed Gresham's acidic portrayal of psychologists in the form of the wonderfully evil Lilith Ritter.Lilith is a true model for those in the helping professions.
Each chapter of the book begins with a depiction of a tarot card.It helps set the mood of ominous occult tinged creepiness that gives the book a compelling power.There is something fundamentally unclean and demented here.It is a book by a man possessed.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY strikes one false , unconvincing note near the end.Gresham who flitted from ideology to religion and back again(at different points he was a Christian ,a Buddhist,a Communist and one of the first Scientologists)must have still been in his Communist phase and trowels on some interracial working class solidarity.Sorry Stan would not have been impressed!No the true spirit of this novel lies in its description of how to make a geek.Is that something you want to know?