William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 classic-of-a-sort never disappeared—Spain Rodriguez illustrated Nightmare Alley in 2003, and it's playing in L.A. as a musical as I write. And now we have a reissue of the essential text, the least "corrupt and censored"version—per Nick Tosches's forward—of a work on intimate terms with anti-human emotions.
Stan Carlisle is a 21-year-old virgin run away to the carnival at the start of Nightmare Alley, which follows The Great Stanton through his unsentimental education and rise, from the early 1920s through turbulent 30s, from magic tricks to vaudeville mind-reading to parlor-spiritualist respectability. His conscience doesn't make it past the sideshow. Nightmare Alley is transfixed by the resourceful skullduggery of show folks and its demonic blond hero, while reporting the psychological attrition of a career in flim-flam. No softie to start with, Stan sizes up people as marks and chumps until his worldview retracts to: "Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough."
The book is 22 chapters, each headed by a figured trump card of the Tarot deck—one of its author's manias. Gresham was a wounded soul whose search for balm led him through the Communist Party, Presbyterianism and psychotherapy, with booze in between. Each can be discerned here, including an aside with a rail-riding "Negro"that screams 30s "committed"fiction, several dollars worth of dimestore Freud, and a femme fatale psychologist who reads Stan cold after he's spent a lifetime using women as accessories to his act.
Tyrone Power bought and starred in a convincing Nightmare Alley for Fox the next year, but tumultuous Gresham couldn't capitalize on his "break,"producing just one more novel, then nonfictions about Houdini and freak shows, before his 1962 death. Ailing, Gresham committed suicide in Times Square's Dixie Hotel, where he'd taken notes on carny lingo 20 earlier. Tosches celebrates Gresham's ear for the idiomatic rap of the midway—and it does rightly bark off the page.