Thursday, 27 August 2009

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I quickly became hooked on Patricia Highsmith’s books last year and read three in rapid succession. Strangers on a Train was the third one I picked up; filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, it is probably her most famous after the series of Ripley novels.

Guy Haines meets Charles Bruno on a train and lets slip in conversation that he is going to Metcalfe, Texas to sort out a divorce with his estranged wife, who is pregnant by another man. The dissolute Bruno, clearly smitten by Guy, decides to help him out and travels down to Texas after him and kills the unfortunate woman. When the innocent Guy is finally out of police suspicion, Bruno makes a reappearance in his life, blackmailing him into murdering his father.

Of the two protagonists, Bruno is the more interesting; clearly unhinged, he is dangerously alcoholic as well as allowing his intense feelings for Guy to destroy the poor man’s life. His relationship with his mother is straight out of Freud, (I almost expected him to blind himself at the end, but that would simply have confirmed Anouilh’s theory that Oedipus was a melodramatic...) but his relationship with the bottle is just as messy.

Bruno, sharing a hotel suite with his mother, slopes off to the bathroom for an early morning sharpener:

He turned the water on harder, leaned on the basin, and concentrated on the bright nickel-plated drainstop. After a moment, he reached for the Scotch bottle he kept under towels in the clothes hamper. He felt less shaky with the glass of Scotch and water in his hand... In the mirror, the portrait of a young man of leisure, of reckless and mysterious adventure, a young man of humour and depth, power and gentleness (witness the glass held delicately between thumb and forefinger with the air of an imperial toast) – a young man with two lives. He drank to himself.

And all before breakfast... Small wonder that by the end of the book, Bruno has met a watery end and Guy has been driven insane.

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