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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train - Patricia Highsmith

You know the hook, right? Two men meet for the first time on a train. One of them is respectable, conventional, the other is excitable and a little deranged. The first man (Guy Haines) wants a divorce from his cheating wife, who is in no hurry to give it to him, especially now that his career is beginning to take off. The second man (Charles Bruno) despises his father and wants him dead. They converse. And Bruno hatches a plan: what if, he says, he were to kill Guy's wife and Guy, in turn, were to kill Bruno's father? Two perfect murders that would free them both. Guy is shocked; Bruno is just getting started.

It's a terrific hook, but it gives you the wrong impression of the book, like listening to "Band of Gold" without hearing the words. This isn't a thriller, per se, it's a psychological thriller. Highsmith is less interested in the plot than in its effect on Guy.

And Guy is weak. We know he's weak right from the get-go: there's that divorce he wants, but which he keeps letting his wife put off. Even though he's in love with another woman now and wants to marry her. His marriage shames him so much, he's willing to give up his big break (he's an architect) in order to keep it hidden.

Shame is one of the novel's major themes. Guy's shame is manyfold; Bruno's is suppressed, like his homosexuality. Guy is shamed by his marriage, his passivity, and his odd attraction/revulsion to Bruno. It alternately pushes him forward and holds him back. He has a theory of opposites, and is himself a contradiction. He's able to marry his two halves, but only so long as no one objects. When Bruno carries out his part of the plan, Guy starts to separate. When Bruno wants Guy to carry out his part (though he never agreed to it), he's faced with either finding the inner strength to deal with it or coming completely unglued.

So, back to the hook. Does this sound like the thriller you were expecting? It wasn't what I was expecting. I abandoned the book the first time I picked it up about a third of the way through. I figured I'd allow some time for my expectations to readjust. When I took it up again, starting fresh from the beginning, I found that I still liked Bruno's scheme better than all the rest. Guy is such a milquetoast, and his inner conflict so all-pervasive, that it's like creeping toward a car wreck for long stretches at a time. The wreck itself is morbidly exciting, but the wait is tiresome.