Friday, 8 March 2013

The Hitchhiker (Red Lights) - Georges Simenon

Enter 'the tunnel' with Steve, a Madison Avenue man of mid-50s America; a family man, but one who's prone to finding himself in a dark state of mind.

Whilst making the long trip out of town to pick up their kids the couple are slowly torn apart with a final, terrible consequence. The motorway becomes a metaphorical track from which no respectable man dare deviate. Each bar en route beckons as Steve seeks salvation in booze, his urge to drink, to be free to do so, driving the wedge between him and his wife ever deeper as the miles roll by and bitterness grows.

The Hitchhiker picks Steve, who sees him as a symbol of freedom, someone not shackled by either office drudgery or domestic strife. The tone is noirish throughout, by which I mean I could see it as a Robert Aldrich film as I read; faces lit by the dashboard and the pulsing light of oncoming traffic, illuminating the tension etched on their faces.

Simenon's prolific output does nothing to diminish his razor sharp prose and probably fuels it when it comes to economy of words applied for maximum effect. One thing he does brilliantly in this short novel is depict the gradual descent into drunkenness of a man in denial of his condition. But as Simenon writes at the beginning, this is a man who, when in that dark, 'tunnel' state of mind, never admits it to himself.

The outcome of the dark journey is powerfully depicted, with Simenon offering only the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

New York Review Books republished it as Red Lights in 2006, but I was lucky enough to find the Doubleday first edition pictured above. It's distressed condition perfectly matches the mental state of Steve and his wife.

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