Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book review: Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky

Last year, I read & review Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, a novel set in (just) pre-WWII London about George, a perenially near-broke young man who wastes all his money socialising with people he doesn't really like just because Netta, the object of his obsession, is in their group. While I loved the book, for some reason I had it in my head that Hangover Square was, if not Hamilton's only novel, certainly his major one. Recently, looking through the NYRB Classics catalogue, I discovered that they publish two of his other books - this one & The Slaves of Solitude (which I have not yet read, but will soon). Both, as is customary for NYRB Classics, have gorgeous covers too. So I ordered it quickly and read it as soon as it arrived.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is actually a collection of three linked novellas which were published separately in 1929, 1932 and 1934 before being collected together in 1935. Each focuses on a different character: The Midnight Bell is the story of Bob, a young bartender at the pub of that name who falls for a beautiful prostitute, Jenny. Her story is told in the shortest part of the trilogy, The Siege of Pleasure. And The Plains of Cement follows Ella, Bob's coworker at the Midnight Bell, who also has a crush on him.

As with Hangover Square (1941), the world here is of the young & impoverished working classes. The Midnight Bell can be seen in some ways as an early version of that later novel - Bob has little money, is very proud of the savings he has, but continually throws it away to impress Jenny. She is no Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, either - while her own story in the second volume fills in her character and presents her more sympathetically, she is clearly interested in Bob only to the extent that he can help her out of her financial problems and occasionally show her a good time. The problem is, of course, that he is barely richer than she is. Time after time she stands him, ignores or is rude to him and all-too-clearly (at least from the reader's perspective) grasps after his money while offering little in return. Apparently based on a period in Hamilton's own life, he brings both a sympathy and a clear-eyed perspective to Bob's story: we see every one of Bob's series of bad decisions, but at the same time that we dread everything he does and wish we could reach through the book's page and give him a firm shaking we also never stop hoping that it will work out for him.

In the brief The Siege of Pleasure (just over 100 pages), we jump back in time to see how Jenny went from being a sensible, indeed model, maid to a pair of eldery sisters and their infirm brother to prostitution. Here, rather than the several-months timespan of Bob's story, we see the shift in Jenny's life over the course of one night: after having landed her new job, she goes out for the night with a friend she doesn't particularly like. Lacking the willpower to do anything else, she ends up not only trying alcohol for the first time, but going on a rather impressive bender, along with her unlovely friend and two random men they meet. Hamilton leaves most of her subsequent journey up to us to imagine, but while the idea of one night's drunkeness leading to life as a working girl might seem simplistic or extreme, Hamilton's success here is that he sells the idea. Given the chance to focus on just a couple of days, Hamilton's gift for creating an atmosphere is in full flight.

Circling back to the same timeframe as The Midnight Bell, in The Plains of Cement, Ella's story largely avoids the trick of just showing us Bob's story from the perspective of his friend. That's what I'd expected - Ella moping while he's out wasting his money on that cheap floozy (it's worth noting that, from the moment Jenny first enters the bar, both Bob & Ella know exactly what she does for a living). Instead, we see Ella's life parallelling Bobs - she also meets someone at the Midnight Bell and her story mostly deals with that relationship. Mr Eccles is a relatively wealthy older man who takes a liking to Ella and begins taking her out, assuming a stronger and closer relationship than she is willing to enter into. While she likes him well enough, and is pragmatically aware of the benefits of attaching herself - and eventually marrying - a wealthy man, Ella is unable to commit to the idea. Partly this is because of her unspoken, unreturned, love for Bob, but she also finds Mr Eccles (she struggles to even call him by his first name) too eager, too ridiculous, too quick to assume that they are dating, then engaged. As with the first two entries, The Plains of Cement is told in a third-person perspective of the lead, and again Hamilton shows a fine talent for developing his characters. 

Across all three stories, Hamilton's genius is in describing his world. It's obviously a world he knew well - as noted, the story of Bob was drawn from his own life, but more broadly, these working people and their lives were what he lived in. At times when reading Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky - and especially the first part - I felt almost ashamed of not having a glass of booze in my other hand. In some ways, though, that would have been redundant - so effectively is this world recreated on the page that there's almost no way to get any closer to how the characters feel.

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