Sunday, 25 June 2017

Men with absent fathers: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

A first novel, by a woman, written nearly seventy years ago. Sounds like the ingredient list for tedium pie. Except Highsmith wasn’t your average anything, and Strangers on a Train appears modern in a way that films from the 1950s such as North by Northwest do. And as with Hitchcock, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Highsmith remains readable because she understood men who ranked lowly on the socio-sexual ladder, and the role absent fathers played in that, in a way that few writers today do, and that goes for a good number of male authors too. Her loathing for such men is palpable (she obviously doesn’t pull her punches), and her observation that a low ranking man’s die is cast unless he can find the courage to be a man is one that is all too often lost in contemporary work. It’s also interesting to note that Highsmith made her weak protagonist above average – handsome, a rising star in his profession, and wealthy through the sweat of his brow.

Some readers complain that the book is too long, overly padded with psychological insights rather than action. But it’s this that makes it worth reading. You know how it’s going to end, more or less, after the first chapter, but the lead up to it is almost unbearable. You can see here the groundwork for The Talented Mr Ripley (which I only know from the film, not the book), which delves into the character of a man until you want it to stop.

Highsmith was more astute about the male condition seventy years ago than most people are today. That's not saying much, unfortunately, given the current paucity of intellectual heft on public display. But it's enough to make this worth reading. 

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