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Critical Review by Christopher Ricks
SOURCE: "Death for Elsie," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 14, August 7, 1986, p. 21.
In the following excerpt, Ricks provides a positive review of Found in the Street, focusing on Highsmith's depiction of crime and her portrayal of the protagonist, Elsie Tyler.
Patricia Highsmith has been praised by Graham Greene in the good old way as 'a writer who has created a world of her own'. She can be even better than that—when she takes a world and makes it not only her own but ours. She lurks in the murk where you have to peer to check if this is an—or the—underworld. In her seething city-settings, paranoia may be the saving of you, and yet paranoia does have, too, a hideously masochistic alluring power. She is the poet of these death-bearing pheromones of fear.
Found in the Street is her exact territory; she patrols these Greenwich Village streets as if from a neighbourhood vigilante force. Strangers on a powder-train. She knows crime well, especially in its intimacy with sin and with frustration; she watches for the selfish illiberality of paid-up progressives and for the malfeasances of the Watch Committee, for prurience and high-minded corruption. As a novelist she is herself placed in this grey area or combat zone: should the new Highsmith be sent for review to the supreme fiction people or to the crime squad? She capitalises candidly on these equivocations: Her studies of alienation are at once very literary and allusive and entirely untrammelled by fictive thickenings and alienation-effects. If she is more than admired by, actually is read by, highbrows, this is partly because there is just now a special relief in so unfurrowed a writer from 'the underworld of letters'.
The phrase is T. S. Eliot's. His breach between the underworld of letters and 'serious writers', even though he judged the former (like the music hall as against 'serious' theatre) to be the more healthy in many ways, is one which Highsmith's art both concedes and does something to heal. Their cities, Eliot's and hers, are weightily real and phantasmagorically unreal. 'That subway smell was of old metal-on-metal, of oily dust moist with human breath, the semi-trapped air.' Questions of reality are crucial to Highsmith, but—as to Eliot—they are spiritual questions, not philosophical ones: spiritual, and instinct with the spiritual's fear of an alliance between erotic and economic forces. Elsie Tyler, the victim in Found in the Street (or the victim who, unlike the others, has a sudden dying, not a long day's one), is dead-set for success, garish and enslaved, in the world of glossy modelling and of lip-service to art, an underworld of unreality which comes on as the overworld. Highsmith's anger, dismay and pity at such a world, and particularly at what it does to human decision, choice, and therefore reality, are precipitated by the conditions which Eliot enunciated with grim lips, suggesting
that with the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction today, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real. It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions, rather than in those 'bewildering minutes' in which we are all very much alike, that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an élite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous.
Found in the Street begins with a moment of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions: the decision by a shabby-genteel embittered loner to return to its rightful owner a wallet containing, among other things, 263 dollars. This social and spiritual act has falling upon it the shadow of the impure motive, since the proud good citizen is trying to prove not just something but everything, including that his violent principled atheism puts religionists to shame. 'I'm an atheist, by the way, so naturally I returned your wallet.' But the novel's plot is not bent upon the wallet found in the street but upon the person found there in the opening sentences: Elsie Tyler, who is alive, naive, confident of body, staunch of nature, and educable of mind. Ralph Linderman, who found the wallet, and Jack Sutherland, who lost it, vie for her, though neither as a lover exactly: Ralph, to set her apart from the city predators, there in her coffee-bar and in her shared rooms; Jack, to lift her above her pinched contingencies into some larger air (the larger air-conditioning of affluent squalor, it does seem). Others, too, compete for her: her room-mate, gay; an ex-lover, gay; Jack's wife, found playing both sides of the street. The end is death for Elsie. Do a girl in. Her death is like her life—tangential, in a way: if neither Ralph nor Jack is guilty. And they are shown to be—show themselves to each other to be—much more like each other, in their dangerous idealisings of Elsie, than they dare admit, even though the idealisings are, the one, unworldly, the other, worldly.
It is a question whether the book itself doesn't idealise Elsie. She comes across as oddly vaporous—oddly because that might seem to be a way of not coming across (though one remembers George Eliot's pungent vapour Stephen Guest). Perhaps Highsmith can't quite bear to think that the matter to be contemplated is less that of a liveliness, a life, annulled than of a collusion between something of a personal nullity and modelling's nubile nullities. More likely, though, is that T. S. Eliot's terms apply, and that Elsie is not permitted—not by the book but by something in her and in her society—to become real. 'That was crazy, airy, unreal, his words and his feelings even, as unreal as the Elsie he saw in the photograph in which her face showed largest.' Elsie has something of the vaporousness of the heroine of 'Maud', the heroine loved and competed for and done for: trapped in the wishfulness, not just the wishes, of the driven others. There are gleams, and Highsmith is in her way, like Tennyson in his, a religious writer; I thought of Clough on 'Oh! that 'twere possible', from 'Maud', and on the simmering solitude of the crowded cityscape:
It seems to satisfy a want that we have long been
conscious of, when we see the black streams that
welter out of factories, the dreary lengths of urban
and suburban dustiness,
The squares and streets,
And the faces that one meets,
irradiated with a gleam of divine purity.
The cityscape has its Dickensian gleams, too. When Ralph and Jack slug it out (their quarrel in the street is a thing to be entirely hated, since the energies displayed in it are not fine), there is a moment of suspended quotation which would have delighted both Dickens and his modern analyser Mark Lambert:
'Adulterer,' Ralph said calmly, 'and murderer'. Sutherland said just as calmly, 'Piss off or I'll bust you wide open.'
Just as calmly, but not just as poisedly. Dignity's preposterousness meets indignity's factitiousness. What a world. And what a steely style to indict it with. 'Jack did not exactly hear it, but Elsie had been pronounced dead, the attitude was that she was dead.'
This section contains 1,259 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)