Friday 1 February 2019

Forgotten Book - Dreadful Summit

Stanley Ellin was one of those admirable writers who was always trying something different. He wasn't especially prolific, publishing fourteen novels in just shy of forty years, although he did write a good many short stories of high calibre. Today, he is best remembered for those short stories - "The Question" is one of my all-time favourites - but his novels definitely should not be overlooked. Those I've read are of a very high standard.

This is true even of his debut, Dreadful Summit (the title comes from Hamlet), which was published in 1948, the same year as his famous short story, "The Specialty of the House". It's a remarkable book, and was filmed in 1951 by Joseph Losey as The Big Night; I've not seen the movie, but reviews of it seem to be mixed. As far as I can tell, the novel has been out of print for years, though it was a green Penguin paperback in the 60s.

In some ways, the novel anticipates The Catcher in the Rye. It's a first person narrative, and all the action is crammed into 24 hours, as the narrator, George LaMain, turns sixteen. It's also the day his life changes forever. George's mother died when he was very young and he's been brought up by his father Andy, who runs a bar and grill in New York City. When a well-known columnist called Al Judge assaults Andy in front of George's eyes, the boy vows revenge.

At first, one's instinct is to sympathise with George. But it soon becomes apparent that he'd not really the nice young kid he might seem to be. He records disturbing incidents and behaviour in a way that makes the reader realise that he's deeply troubled. What will become of him? The tension mounts, and this is a good example of a book that benefits greatly from brevity. I'm always intrigued by narratives which disclose a gap between the narrator's perception of the world and objective reality - my own Dancing for the Hangman explored that very theme, though is otherwise utterly different from Ellin's book - and this is a striking, and dark novel. Recommended.

1 comment:

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