It is the drinking life -- its hectic joys; its preposterous impulse for celebration with strangers; its milieu of bores, spongers, and petty con men; its shabby rooms and rundown pubs; its loneliness and regret -- that, more than anything, sets its mark on Hamilton's novels. Even his fantastical, anthropological observations on the peculiar social and psychological formations that occur "in that weird teeming aquarium of the metropolis" are like the lone drinker's scrutiny of a world separated from him by his glass. Incredibly, the novels are also brilliantly funny. Their comic set pieces and wickedly portrayed pub creatures, bullies, manipulators, and snobs leaven and, indeed, redeem what would otherwise be unbearable.
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is a trilogy set in the London of the 1930s. Each of its three novels covers much the same territory, but each enters it through the life of a different character: Bob, a waiter at the Midnight Bell, a cheery enough pub "in all its bottly glitter;" Ella, its barmaid; and Jenny, a girl of the streets. The first novel, The Midnight Bell, follows the doings of Bob, 25, who, when we meet him, is just awakening from having got drunk at lunchtime: "The burden of cold and ever-reoccurring existence weighed down his spirit. Here he was again." Chastened -- again -- he is still not without prospects, at least in his own mind. Building from a small inheritance, he has saved 80 pounds and continues to add to it from his tips, shilling by shilling. He revels in this nest egg. It will buy him the freedom to fulfill his secret dream of becoming "a great writer." Although he has left off actual writing, he warms himself with reveries of the novel to come, a novel that "would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself -- its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser."
This agreeable destiny is imperiled when Bob falls under the spell of Jenny. Over the next couple of weeks, and with Bob's own terrible, deluded connivance, the young prostitute divests him of his money. Those who have read Hamilton's Hangover Square -- a later and grimmer novel -- will find the dynamics, trajectory, and many darts of irony of Bob's downfall painfully familiar.
The second novel, The Siege of Pleasure, tells the tale of how Jenny came to the harlot's estate and came to live in surroundings that Hamilton, a master of sordid interiors, portrays in his version of loving detail: "There were two arm-chairs -- threadbare, down at castors, and bursting.... There was a large double bed, whose sheets were grey. There was a deal cupboard, with shelves above for plates. There was a washing stand with a jug and a basin -- a source of cleanliness, no doubt, but easily the dirtiest thing in the room. A towel, attached to it by a line of string, was several grades greyer than the sheets. Propped up everywhere were framed portraits of men. The favoured gentlemen were mostly taken in their hats and grinned their signed compliments in a sidelong way." It is drink that has brought Jenny to this, and Hamilton pays fearsome homage to its treacherous analgesia: It "seemed to trickle down and heat and awaken every little cell and channel with its brisk medicining.... Last night it had been like the feeling of good news without the good news. Now it was like the news that her bad news was not such bad news after all."
The final novel, The Plains of Cement, is the barmaid Ella's. Poor, plain, and, so her creator tells us, unimaginative, Ella has little chance of fulfilling either her dream of romance with Bob or of freedom from a life of grinding toil. To be sure, opportunity to gain the latter does appear in the shape of a suitor, one Mr. Eccles, a pitilessly rendered petty tyrant, a monster of vanity and priggishness. Hamilton slips his knife into this character so mercilessly that one feels heartfelt authorial revenge is afoot, a fury against the dominion of class and money and morbid respectability that is not unlike Dickens's. Mr. Eccles and his oppressive little ways are observed with indignant disgust by Ella, whose unspoken, blackly comic thoughts on the subject prove her to be not quite the dud Hamilton at first insists that she is. At one point, the officious Eccles, "with sudden Chadbandian fervour" adds exhortations to prayer to his persecutions: "This was frightful," Ella reflects, "If he was going to superadd Religion to all the other mental thumbscrews and tortures he had at his disposal in the dungeon of his shameless and enwrapping personality, she really could not bear it." Her trials, which also include rough treatment at the hands of a ghastly child and a cavalier, dog-owning memsahib, both drawn in vitriol, are awful, but horribly funny. The novel may leave Ella unfulfilled, but by its end, its readers feel that a woman of such penetration and sardonically expressed affront is a heroine.
All three novels here belong to a species of noir in their bleakness, vague air of menace, and sense of inalterable fate. But they also strongly convey the author's compassion for that stratum of English society whose members' lonely, impoverished lives are further diminished by the gaze of uncaring multitudes, in pubs and tea emporiums and beneath the dripping skies on the "plains of cement." --Katherine A. Powers
Katherine A. Powers writes the literary column "A Reading Life" for the Boston Sunday Globe and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.