It’s Labor Day weekend in the 1950s, and the highways from New York to Maine are clogged with couples and families heading north. Steve and Nancy Hogan are going to Maine to pick up their children from a summer-long camp. Steve is unhappily “going into the tunnel,” a private phrase he uses to describe a state he can’t properly explain but that basically means drinking too much but (in his mind) not getting properly drunk.
Red Lights by Georges Simenon and translated by Norman Denny was first published in 1953, and it feels of its time in some respects. The amount of drinking Steve does while on the road is startling, and hardly anyone, aside from Nancy, expresses concern that he’s not fit to drive. And then there’s the Hogan marriage, which seems ahead of its time. Far from being a prototypical 1950s housewife, Nancy works outside the home so that the family can earn enough to live in Long Island. Her career is more successful than Steve’s, and it’s not unusual for her to work late nights and leave him with most of the child care duties.
The state of the Hogan marriage is at the center of this often troubling book. Steve resents his wife’s success, seeing it as a threat to his own masculinity. His drinking appears to be a way of showing off his manliness, even though it really shows off his weakness. He drinks rye even though he hates it because it’s a strong drink.
Steve’s drinking and discontentment lead him and Nancy to quarrel on the road, and she eventually threatens to leave him behind and drive up by herself if he stops at yet another bar. He stops–and takes the keys. When he comes back to the car, Nancy has left a note saying that she’s taking the bus. Steve spends the night wandering the highway (because he won’t ask for directions or get a map) and picks up an escaped convict. The next morning, he’s got a flat tire, his clothes and wallet are stolen, and he has no way to find his wife. When he does, he learns how his irresponsibility and insecurities brought suffering to her.
So we have here a book in which a woman’s suffering brings enlightenment or some such thing to a man. It’s a frustrating kind of story because men should know better. As I read this, I thought of Other Jenny’s recent post about The Association of Small Bombs and narratives that ask us to understand male violence. While Steve is not violent toward Nancy, the violence against her is, it is implied, an acting out of Steve’s own fantasies. He doesn’t quite ask her to be attacked, but he provides justifications for it. And the man who commits the act is presented as a sort of double for Steve, the man he wishes he could be. It is only when his masculinity is reclaimed through this double that he’s able to see how toxic it is.
The ending of the book leaves us with Steve, chastened and determined to do better. He’ll do what needs to be done for his wife, but there’s an unsettling sense that he enjoys the fact that she’s been broken down so that he can take charge. Yet the final line makes it clear that Nancy is the real hero, even if Steve still frames what happens as his tragedy. He’s still focused on what it means for him, and Nancy’s strength is not her own thing but a source he can draw on to be strong himself. It’s an interesting undermining of the lessons Steve believes he has learned, and it shows how far he still has to go.