Steve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, leave New York on Labor Day to drive to Maine to collect their children from summer camp. Steve feels himself ‘going into the tunnel’, an expression he uses privately to describe his desire to go on a drinking binge.
Steve suffers from feelings of inadequacy due to the fact that Nancy has a more prestigious, better-paid job than he does and because it is he who has to get home early every day to mind the children. He feels emasculated and resentful.
As they make their journey, Steve insists, as an act of defiance, on stopping at a number of roadside bars. Following one of these stop-offs, Nancy has had enough and decides to continue the journey on her own. When Steve returns to his car, he finds an escaped convict, Sid Halligan, in the passenger seat. Steve is delighted by this turn of events and helps Sid evade the police road blocks which have been set up. As he descends further and further into drunkenness, he quizzes his passenger about his past deeds. He regards Sid as a ‘real man’; or, rather, as the kind of man he would like to be: ‘He had no wife or children or, probably no friends, either, and he went his way in the night, when he had needed a gun he smashed a shop window to get one.’
Steve finally passes out and when he comes to the following morning, he discovers that his wife has been attacked and raped – by Halligan. Nancy, the successful career woman, has been punished, in the age-old way, for striking out on her own.
Halligan is the Mr Hyde to Hogan’s Dr Jekyll – the id to his ego – conjured up the concoction of booze he has consumed. Sid’s act of vengeance is carried out while Steve is unconscious, and, later, when, Steve is brought to confront Halligan in jail, he appears to be about to strike him, but ‘no one suspected that it was some part of himself that he had nearly struck when he had raised his fist.’ In the end, with Halligan banished (he is to be sent to the electric chair), Steve feels able to ‘return to everyday life.’
Simenon could never be accused of being a feminist, but his female characters are rarely punished so explicitly. Despite this unpleasant, even repellent narrative, other commentators rate Red Lights highly. Thornton Wilder, in a letter to the author, calls it ‘a powerful book. And a most brilliant one.’ In her introduction to the NYRB edition, Anita Brookner calls it ‘masterly’. Patrick Marnham reckons it, ‘perhaps his best roman dur with an American setting.’ Both Brookner and Marnham praise Simenon’s mastery of his American setting, and it is true that the atmosphere of the roadside bars and their habitués is evoked with Simenon’s customary deftness – the stickiness of a counter; a rack of rifles displayed on a wall; an illuminated jukebox, whose ‘gleaming mechanism manipulated the records with fascinating deliberation.’
However, even aside from any reservations about its narrative, Red Lights cannot be regarded as among Simenon’s best work. One of Simenon’s greatest assets is his ability to seamlessly weave together the past and present of his characters, so that we understand how they came to be as they are, and, thus, that they have little choice but to act in the way they do. In Red Lights, however, we learn little about Steve’s past and, as such, have little understanding or sympathy for him. The characterisation is thin. Even his name is unconvincing; Steve Hogan sounds more like the name for a cowboy in a B-move western.
As in another of Simenon’s American novels, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, the characters are not located in any one place. They are drift from bar to bar, finding a freedom in frequenting places where nobody knows them. In Simenon’s European novels, his characters are typically rooted in a particular location and routine, and are unable to ‘be themselves’ for fear of being seen to act out of character. Simenon had lived in the United States for eight years by the time he wrote Red Lights. Perhaps America, for him, represented a place in which to exist unfettered by one’s past, but it is precisely because Steve Hogan exists only in the present tense of Red Lights that it lacks power and psychological depth.
First published as Feux Rouges, 1953. NYRB edition 2006, translated by Norman Denny.
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014