Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Book 3 – Strangers On a Train

By Patricia Highsmith

Another Highsmith book down the hatch. Another enjoyable read by a writer who's quickly becoming a favourite of mine (thanks to Olman).

If you’ve seen or heard of the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation (which I haven’t seen yet), then you’ll get an idea of the plot. Anyway, Partricia Highsmith is well-known for her psychological thrillers and her favourite thingof all is to write through the eyes of a murderer. This novel is titled Strangers On a Train - it doesn’t take a Sherlock to figure out what kind of story this is going to be!

What’s more, SOaT is funny, in a very black, wicked kind of way. The humour almost always involve Charles Bruno, the disturbed twenty-five year old mama’s boy who convinces budding architect Guy Haines to murder his father. When Guy first meets Charles (or rather Bruno, as he’s mostly referred as) on a train, there’s a huge protruding pimple on Bruno’s forehead. It’s a great image, since as their journey progresses, Guy grows more and more uncomfortable as Bruno gets a little too excited over the idea of murdering his father, and he can’t help but fixate on the glistening pimple as Bruno’s face gets shiny with sweat. Delightful!

And later on when Bruno stalks Guy’s estranged wife, his cutting thoughts made me LOL:

She was cute in a plump college-girl sort of way, but definitely second-rate, Bruno judged. The red socks with the red sandals infuriated him. How could Guy have married such a thing!

No wonder Olman enjoys Highsmith so!

How poor Guy Haines becomes gradually tortured by remorse was also done well to a fault - his guilt was always boiling under the surface, not spoiled by cheap gestures, like hand-wringing, though there were some nightmares and overwrought touches. But there were also little details, like Guy afflicted with “a slight case of diarrhoea”. Ah, only Highsmith can write about pimples and diarrhoea with such elegance and humour. Guy’s repressed guilt and Bruno’s mental deterioration reminded me a lot of what Raskolnikov underwent in Crime and Punishment. A peak in Wikipedia revealed that Dostoevsky as a major influences in her work.

The protagonists in many of Highsmith's novels are either morally compromised by circumstance or actively flouting the law. Many of her antiheroes, often emotionally unstable young men, commit murder in fits of passion, or simply to extricate themselves from a bad situation. They are just as likely to escape justice as to receive it. The works of Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky played a significant part in her own novels.

Though this is only my third Highsmith novel, I’ll admit that SOaT is not my favourite novel of hers so far, mainly because some of the portrayals of mental deterioration and torture by guilt were overwrought at times. And she was wearing Dostoevsky on her sleeve a little too obviously. But my main concern was that I wasn’t entirely convinced of the quick-bonding relationship between Guy and Charles (the obsessive man-crush/homosexual undercurrent seems trite now, but it was the 1950’s after all á la Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven), though each made for fascinating character study. In her later novels I found the characters’ motivations more believable when they lose it and commit heinous crimes. But SOaT was her first novel, published in 1950 when she was 29. The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I greatly admire, was her fourth novel, published five years later, and there she was already refining her own voice and style.


OlmanFeelyus said...

I hadn't know that this was her first novel. Interesting to know. I think my good memories of this book actually are more due to the movie, which I remember being particularly fun (and which I found out thanks to a great review by Barry Gifford in The Devil Thumbs a Ride).

The other thing that Highsmith does so well is choose names. Somehow the name "Guy" is just so perfect for that character but I can't say why.

Lantzvillager said...

Highsmith writes guilt better than anyone I know. It doesn't take a degree to see that it probably came from her own life. I am hoping to read her latest biography this year for some insight.

Doc said...

The blog reader uttered a deep sigh of defeat as he added yet another book to his "to be read" list.

Craig D. said...

The Hitchcock film is good, but it waters down the novel by turning it into a simple tale of good vs. evil, which went against everything Highsmith's fiction was about. Instead of murdering Bruno's father as he does in the book, Guy flat-out refuses, like a good (non-Highsmithian) moral hero. And aside from the basic plot set-up, the book and the film have very little in common. Still, it's worth watching for Robert Walker's terrific performance as Bruno, among other reasons. (The direction, no surprise, is excellent.)

Strangers isn't my favorite Highsmith, but I quite like it. It sort of lays down a rough blueprint of Ripley, but at the same time, it's sort of an anti-Ripley novel. Where there Ripley books follow a man who cons and kills with little remorse (like a much less repulsive and slightly less psychotic version of Bruno), it mostly focuses on Guy, who torments himself with guilt over his actions, even though he admits to himself that he secretly wanted it. Good stuff.