Tuesday, March 31, 2009

09.13 Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water (1957) by Patricia Highsmith
Pbk, Penguin Crime, 260 p.

What a writer! Patricia Highsmith doesn't rely on tricks or gimmicks. She builds up her stories bit by bit so that near the end of the book you want to read more but you are also a little bit scared to find out what happens. I haven't read any Highsmith in a long time I think, in part, because of something that was mention by another reviewer: "she is so precise and cold in the way she views humans that it could make you a little crazy if you read too much of her (or at least depressed)."

Victor Van Allen has it all. He is a well respected man with many friends in a perfect small town. He has a beautiful, sexy wife and a lovely daughter. There are no money concerns - he has a small private income which allows him to run an exclusive printing company putting out a few titles a year of poetry, etc.

Victor Van Allen, however, is a cuckold.

Ever since their marriage his wife has had a series of lovers all paraded before him and the town. She often has them over for dinner and drinks long into the night and before Vic retires to his room on the other side of the garage. The marriage is a sham and yet Vic seems entirely unfazed by the whole thing. He has has his hobbies and his printing company and his wonderful daughter which seem to give him perfect equanimity about the situation.

His friends, however, see the situation and are constantly urging him to do something about it. Get mad, get divorced, do something. So finally one night at a party he spreads a rumor that he killed one of her lovers who had disappeared a time ago. And that, of course, opens the Pandora's box to possibly committing a real murder.

I loved the wholesale indictment of the classic suburban 50's lifestyle that this novel presents. Each chapter is another banality of a school concert or a neighbors picnic yet Highsmith keeps ramping up the tension. You feel as though something is going to happen but you don't want it to because it will bring down this house of cards that has been constructed.

There is also fairly overt sense of misandry going on here. The entire novel is told only from the perspective of Vic which gives you a certain sense of myopia after awhile. He is entirely contemptuous of most of the characters in the book other than a few people and even some of them ultimately let him down. At times he seems almost like an automaton, entirely too perfect. I've seen it characterized that "[Highsmith] writes about men like a spider writing about flies". A most apt description.

I give this novel a wholehearted recommendation.

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