05 April 2007

High on Highsmith

Why haven't I been reading you all my life? Another loaner, this one from Dr. Howard: Nothing that Meets the Eye: uncollected stories of Patricia Highsmith. Ms. Highsmith wrote the novel Strangers on a Train which Alfred Hitchcock made into a brilliant film, perhaps his best. I always gave Mr. H the credit for that taut, creepy movie, perhaps I should have searched for the source. Highsmith's universe is filled with losers and scary people--not street corner toughs, or crackheads, or gangbangers, nothing like that. Her characters seem normal, they look OK, they are just off-kilter, not quite on the same plane as the rest of us. Lonely and alienated, they drift into relationships that fail to connect them or open them up, or if they do reveal their true selves, we want to run away. This collection is diverse enough to include some upbeat tales, where "little guys" triumph despite things going awry, or oddballs find love or truth or meaning in the hidden corners of their worlds. But the pervasive tone is bleak, the primary motive is fear, and the main resolution is defeat. For all that, these aren't depressing stories, far from it. Highsmith's prose is tuned to a perfect pitch and her tales possess a graceful elegance. She grasps the little things about people that allow us to be guiltless voyeurs, and we come away having seen perhaps too much, but without having our noses rubbed in it. Unsettling and satisfying at the same time--that's quite a balancing act, and she pulls it off.

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