25 August 2012

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Patrick Hamilton)

Was gonna write about Patrick Hamilton's trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky--my favorite read for the NYRB Classics book club so far this year--back on Wednesday, but then I had a beer (a Magic Hat Elder Betty, which yum! also, we keep having parties, and people bring over beer, and then they leave it, and then we have, three weeks later, 14 beers left in the fridge, and should we just have another party and be like DO NOT BRING BEER WE'VE GOT SOME?). Anyway: had a beer, lost my ambition. Which is in retrospect perfect, as booze and the bad decisions derived therefrom are a recurring theme in Hamilton's working-class epic (and apparently his life, poor guy). Like in my favorite, favorite lines, stuck in my head forever:
He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth--bitter and sickly. He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again.
Twenty Thousand Streets' three linked novels correspond to three connected characters: Patrick (The Midnight Bell), Jenny (The Siege of Pleasure), and Ella (The Plains of Cement). Patrick and Ella are co-workers at a pub, Jenny a prostitute who comes in for a drink one night, with whom Patrick pursues a financially ruinous and heartbreakingly one-sided relationship*. Jenny's story is told in flashback, detailing her rise from meek factory girl thrilled at the prospect of becoming a live-in maid, through her introduction to drunkenness, to her rapid slide into streetwalking. Meanwhile, scraping-by Ella suffers the courtship of middle-aged, unpleasant Mr. Eccles, seeing it as her only chance to escape being constantly broke--unless her mother's awful husband dies.

You know the crazy thing? That synopsis sounds like Downertowne U.K. (sister city to Bummerville U.S.A.), but Twenty Thousand Streets is often funny, usually thanks to Hamilton's snappy prose style--dude rocks the Sarcastic Capitals. An extended passage regarding Mr. Eccles's snaggletooth, which often passes without notice but sometimes proves "capable of exercising a partially hypnotic effect upon those who looked at it for too long, and at moments made him look rather like a tiger," is hysterical. Hamilton also, I think, sidesteps miserablism through his empathy for his marginal and tragic-in-the-classical-sense characters. He's not putting these people through these trials, but observing and, yes, loving them--this care allows the reader to inhabit these lives, and the result is immersive, emotional, enchanting.

*(This is apparently autobiographical. Yikes!)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Muse at Highway Speeds by http://museathighwayspeeds.blogspot.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.