Book review: Night and the City

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Gerald Kersh is someone I’d wanted to read for a while. Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock were and are both fans, and the author seems to be one of those, like Poe or Dickens, who managed a hack’s volume, but also kept a remarkable quality.

He also looked natty as fuck, let’s face it.

Night and the City is a 1938 novel that spawned a classic noir film which is now likely better known than its source material. Broadly, it concerns a spiv, Harry Fabian who dreams big and is in eternal pursuit of the big payday – or heavy sugar as he would have it.

He’s not very good at it. Instead, he’s a self-mythologising ponce – a pimp who forces his girlfriend to work the streets while he fantasises about breaking the bank at Monte Carlo, or about becoming a big wheel in the wrestling biz.

The habitual liar always imagines that his lies ring true. No miracle of belief can equal his childlike faith in the credulity of the people who listen to him, and so it comes to pass that he fools nobody as completely as he fools himself.

The novel is set in 1930s London, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. There’s a coronation on the way, and money to be had. Whether Fabian has the nous to keep any of the cash he gets (via blackmail, pimping and assorted other schemes) remains to be seen.

Fabian isn’t the only dweller on the threshold we’re introduced to. Kersh populates the novel with vivid figures: aged nightclub owners and their young wives, looking for the next rung on the ladder of gentrification; hardened dance hall partners; bellicose fruiterers; marks and sheep; and wrestling heavyweights, both past their prime and hitting their straps.

There’s a lot made of the extremes to which people will go in order to get by in the big city, and the effect this has on ambition, noble and ignoble. A sculptor becomes enmeshed in the club scene at the cost of his artistic ambition. A sophisticate is drawn to the level of her flatmate. And an old man is geed up by his charges to the point of possible death. The spectre of prosecution looms, yet there’s a sense that people are whirling around a world where consequences are something unconsidered.

Until, of course, they occur.

London is the biggest character of this novel, however: particularly Soho. If you’ve ever walked those streets, avoiding drunks and touts, you’ll find something in here you recognise. There’s a real love for the city, despite its frequent ugliness, and Kersh finds poetry in homeless fires and the sun rising over spew-decked streets.

He saw London as a kind of Inferno – a series of concentric areas with Piccadilly Circus as the ultimate center.

The writing is taut and electric. There’s plenty of humour, but plenty of viciousness, too. I’m not a wrestling fan, really, but the novel’s description of a high-stakes match is peerless, a real dose of adrenaline. The book has the booze sweats and the tub-skipping funk of the perpetually hustling, and it’s great.

The book also contains a fairly detailed overview of Kersh’s life and worked, penned by the editor of the current edition. It’s a useful way into the author’s world, though the increase in ebook editions of his works do address some of the rarity mentioned in this section. In it, though, one learns that the characters in Night and the City are so keenly observed because they are taken from Kersh’s life experiences.

(You also learn that he was once run over by a relative, in a car bought by that relative with funds awarded them after suing Kersh for defamation in an earlier novel. Guy had stories, for sure.)

I’m unsure how this novel will compare to the rest of Kersh’s work. He’s known for his prodigious output, especially of short stories, and I also know he’s got a rep in the SFF world. I know that there’s a couple of other books set in this milieu (Fowler’s End, for example) so my desire for more low-life jerk-arsery will undoubtedly be sated once more.

But part of me is worried. Night and the City is so terrible and wonderful – how can one top it? I’m almost tempted to investigate no further and keep this as a gritty solitaire.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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