Patricia Highsmith | Critical Review by Robert Towers

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
This section contains 1,333 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert Towers

SOURCE: "The Way We Live Now," in New York Review of Books, March 31, 1988, Vol. XXXV, No. 5, pp. 36-7.

In the following excerpt, Towers offers a mixed assessment of Found in the Street, expressing reservations about Highsmith's "downplaying of the dramatic."

[Highsmith] is prolific, with nineteen novels to her credit, together with six volumes of short stories…. [She] frequently writes from the point of view of one or more of her male characters, who may or may not be "straight"; in fact, taken as a group, Miss Highsmith's characters, male and female, represent a wide spectrum of what used to be called the perverse….

Highsmith is one of those writers of genre fiction who have a following among literary people, especially in England. She has been handsomely praised by Graham Greene, Julian Symons, and Auberon Waugh. In this country she has had enthusiastic readers ever since her first book, Strangers on a Train, which was filmed by Hitchcock, but her literary reputation is fairly recent and seems just now to be gaining momentum. Found in the Street, which was published in Britain in 1986 and in this country only a few months ago, has been widely and for the most part glowingly reviewed.

The novel begins with the image of a pretty girl with short blond hair and white sneakers making her way, smiling and spirited, down a Greenwich Village street. Suddenly she spots a man "with a rather side to side gait and with a dog on a leash. The girl stopped abruptly, and took the first opportunity to cross the street." We cut immediately to the consciousness of the dog walker, a middle-aged man named Ralph Linderman, who is clearly obsessive and a bore, his head full of angry clichés about dirty streets, littering kids, and muggers. We learn that eighteen years before he had fallen down an elevator shaft in a garage where he worked as a security guard and has felt changed ever since. We learn too that he is preoccupied with a young blond girt, Elsie, whom he met in a coffee shop, and worries about her safety in this dangerous, sordid city. While Ralph is conscientiously scooping up the mess of his dog, a black and white, piglike animal he has named God, he finds a wallet lying in the gutter. Though a cantankerous atheist, Ralph thinks of himself as one of the last moral men, and there is no question that he will return the bulging wallet to its rightful owner.

Thus we meet the second consciousness of the novel—that of a blandly reasonable, agreeable man whose character contrasts in every way with Ralph's. Jack Sutherland is an "upscale" young book designer and commercial artist who enjoys a coolly modern marriage with a good-looking fairly rich woman named Natalia. "She was the kind of girl, or woman, who would bolt and run off, perhaps forever, if she felt the marital harness chafing even a little." They live in a handsomely decorated apartment on Grove Street in the Village (only a short distance from Ralph's Bleecker Street tenement) and have a bright little girl, Amelia. For the rest of the novel we alternate between Ralph and Jack, following the former from his dingy flat to the garage where he works at night and the latter to conferences about his art work, to parties, gallery openings, and other events in the life of a young New York husband and father. In addition to the returned wallet, Ralph and Jack have a bond in their mutual fascination with the young blond girt, Elsie, whom Jack, too, has encountered at the coffee shop where she works as a waitress.

Terrified that Elsie might fall into prostitution or get hooked on drugs, Ralph makes a nuisance of himself at the coffee shop, lecturing her on her sex life and issuing baleful warnings. He begins to spy on her, following her to her apartment. Jack, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her looks and spirit and wants to sketch her—all without any acknowledged desire to go to bed with her. When Ralph one day sees Elsie leave Jack's building (she has innocently helped him carry home some groceries), he suspects the worst and writes Jack a letter telling him not to see the girl again. What follows is a situation of mounting paranoia on Ralph's part and growing annoyance on the part of Jack and Elsie. Having set up this situation, Patricia Highsmith complicates it by revealing that this sunny girl of men's dreams is, at least for the present, a lesbian, and that Jack's wife, Natalia, has fallen in love with her. Jack's easy acceptance of his wife's homosexual affair is an example of the passivity that seems to afflict so many of Patricia Highsmith's male characters, including her murderers.

Interestingly (and typically) the author does not play up the inherent drama in the situation, but mutes it, slows things down, and distracts us with other matters. We are allowed to spend a lot of time with Amelia, watching her being put to bed, listening to her prattle with her parents, particularly her father, who, more than the elusive Natalia, is in charge of domestic arrangements. We tune in on Ralph's reminiscences of his wretched, brief marriage and listen to his misogynous imprecations. From time to time we are allowed to glimpse Elsie's meteorically rising career (aided by Jack and Natalia) as a fashion model. The explosion, when it occurs, is produced not by the bomb that has been quietly ticking away but from another source altogether—the sudden murderous impulse of a jealous "dikey" type whom we have met only once before and may well have forgotten. Murder, in Patricia Highsmith's hands, is made to occur almost as casually as the bumping of a fender or a bout of food poisoning.

This downplaying of the dramatic in her work has been much praised, as has the ordinariness of the details with which she depicts the daily lives and mental processes of her psychopaths. Both undoubtedly contribute to the domestication of crime in her fiction, thereby implicating the reader further in the sordid fantasy that is being worked out. Found in the Street is a fairly typical example—less lively than the cycle involving that prince of disguises and offhand murder, Tom Ripley, and less stolid than, say, Deep Water. The claustrophobic and obsessional quality that Graham Greene has praised (and that I certainly experienced in other novels going all the way back to the rantings of the polymorphously warped Bruno in Strangers on a Train) is here limited to those passages in which we are trapped in the boring mind of Ralph Linderman, but its impact is undeniable. The denouement, when it occurs, is skillfully worked out and its effect is enhanced by the way in which the reader has been led to expect something altogether different.

But I have reservations that apply, in varying degrees, to Patricia Highsmith's other novels as well. The ordinariness—what might be called the calculated banality—of her approach extends to her use of dialogue, which in the case of Found in the Street is generally commonplace and often dull. Miss Highsmith's ear seems to fail her when she attempts to reproduce the speech of the contemporary American young—would a girl like Elsie really pepper her speech with "gollys" and "by goshes" and refer to young men as "fellows"? Furthermore, the utilitarian flatness of the novel's prose is such that one is never tempted to quote more than is strictly needed for illustrative purposes. While the characters, here and elsewhere, come equipped with any number of interesting kinks, quirks, and neuroses, their rendering seems to me to lack a certain energy that would make them memorable in their pathology. I suppose I should at this point confess that I find the understated approach to the crime genre that Miss Highsmith's British critics admire less appealing than the fast-paced, vulgarly sensational, and demonically attuned crime novels of a writer like Elmore Leonard.

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This section contains 1,333 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Towers
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Critical Review by Robert Towers from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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