In her introduction to this new New York Review Books edition, Anita Brookner nails the Simenon “formula”:
The formula is simple but subtle. A life will go wrong, usually because of an element in the protagonist’s make-up which impels him to self-destruct, to willfully seek disgrace, exclusion, ruin in his search for a fulfillment and a fatal freedom which take on an aura of destiny.
Red Lights is a perfect example of this. It takes place—ironically enough, given the date of this posting—over Labor Day weekend, when a reasonably successful couple are driving from New York to Maine to pick their kids up from summer camp. Meeting at a bar before they take off, Steve starts to “enter the tunnel,” his internal terminology for “going on a bender.”
As they start their drive, Steve keeps getting off the road for a drink. And another. And a double. Finally, after a bit of typical marital quibbling, Steve hits the bar and Nancy decides to take a bus up to Maine.
Then bad things happen, because in Simenon’s books, bad things always happen. Steve meets Sid—a convict recently escaped from Sing Sing—and tries to help Sid elude the law before getting too drunk to be of any good whatsoever. The plot revolves around a few coincidences that are a bit of a stretch, but definitely worth the suspension of disbelief, because it is through these coincidences and their recourse that we come to understand Steve.
Simenon’s ability to create a text that completely unifies language, characterization, and plot is quite remarkable. His language is scaled-down, direct, and precisely matches the dark, foreboding atmosphere of his novels.
One of the motifs running through the first few chapters of the novel is the idea of how dangerous the outside world is. It’s Labor Day weekend, thousands are on the road, and it’s inevitable that some of them are going to die. And that some will inevitably put themselves in harms way.
How many dead had the experts predicted for the weekend? Four hundred and thirty-five. He remembered the exact figure. Therefore he wasn’t drunk. The proof was that he had driven at seventy miles an hour without the least mishap.
Content and style are matched so perfectly in this book, as is the balance between dialogue and internal thought. The complexities of character build perfectly as Steve’s psyche is fleshed out in all its drunken rage and delusion.
“What? Do you have to know what I think? God almighty, it might at least help you to try and understand other people and make life a bit more pleasant for them. For me, in particular. Only I doubt if you care.”
“Wouldn’t you let me drive?”
“No, I wouldn’t. Just for the sake of argument, suppose instead of always thinking of yourself and being so damned sure you’re right, you took a good look at yourself in the mirror and asked yourself . . . “
He was laboriously struggling to express something he felt, which he was convinced he had felt every day of his life throughout the eleven years they had been married. It was not the first time it had happened, but now he was sure he had made a discovery that would enable him to explain everything. She would have to understand sometime, wouldn’t she? And the day she understood, maybe she’d try and treat him like a grown man.
This novel about a man’s desperate groping for freedom in light of his destructive tendencies is very compelling, well-drawn, and quite worth reading. Maybe not on Labor Day weekend though.
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Norman Denny
New York Review Books
154 pp., $14.00 (pb)
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