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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Red Lights

Georges Simenon

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To purchase Red Lights

Title: Red Lights
Author: Georges Simenon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1953 (Eng. 1955)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Red Lights - US
Red Lights - UK
Red Lights - Canada
Feux rouges - Canada
Red Lights - India
Feux rouges - France
Schlusslichter - Deutschland
  • French title: Feux rouges
  • Originally published in English as: The Hitchhiker
  • Translated by Norman Denny
  • The NYRB Classics edition has an Introduction by Anita Brookner
  • Feux rouges was made into a film in 2004, directed by Cédric Kahn, and starring Carole Bouquet and Jean-Pierre Darroussin

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Our Assessment:

B+ : steeped in alcohol, but nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 7/5/2007 Marco Roth
New York . 16/7/2006 Gary Indiana

  From the Reviews:
  • "Since this is a novel, nothing is without consequence. We know the escaped con will come into it somewhere, and so he does. Hogan picks him up at another bar and discovers a different mirror image, his ideal man. (…) In the end, he will accuse himself of having raped his own wife by proxy and almost by force of will, and that sense of guilt is the only redemption he's allowed." - Marco Roth, The Nation

  • "The nightmarish traffic and lashing rain, the glaring sunlight on a gas station and a diner the next morning, the desuetude of the seaside town where the rest of the novel occurs -- these shifting venues have such palpable reality on the page that Simenon makes a sagging porch emanate almost unbearable emotion. I know how he does it, but I have no idea how he can do it. Among other things, Red Lights is one of the scariest literary renditions of how wrong things can go on too much alcohol" - Gary Indiana, New York

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Red Lights is set on the American East Coast. It's the Labor Day weekend, and Steve and Nancy Hogan are going to drive up from New York city to pick up their kids from their summer camps in Maine.
       The book begins: "He called it 'going into the tunnel'", and that's how the novel, feels, too. The narrative sticks achingly close to Steve throughout the novel, through his increasingly drunk and then hungover journey into ugly but revealing depths. Yes, Steve needs a good belt to prepare him for the trip, and then he needs another. And another. Nancy doesn't seem that worried about his driving under the influence (the part of the book that most noticeably dates it), but she doesn't particularly like his wanting to stop for a drink so often.
       Steve can't help himself; his desperation isn't that of the alcoholic, but of the average Joe who needs to escape down that tunnel every now and then. It's a great character-study, Simenon slowly making his dissatisfaction with his life and more successful wife clear -- a sort of deeply-rooted dissatisfaction, undermining his very being (and manhood) that he probably couldn't even admit to when sober.
       Of course, when you have a couple of hundred miles to drive is probably not the best time to go for a bender, but Steve can't be stopped. Even the radio warnings of the expected number of fatalities on the roads on this holiday weekend do nothing to deter him. Among the other news of the day: a prisoner, Sid Halligan, escaped from Sing Sing and has so far evaded his pursuers .....
       Steve makes more than one stop too many, and Nancy disappears while he's having another drink: she'd warned him she would go on alone if he stopped, and when he gets back to the car he finds a note from her that she's taking the bus. He tries to catch up with her, but can't -- and he can't stop stopping for a drink, either. What follows is his descent into the depths of his tunnel, as he's eventually so smashed that he literally can't stand. Needless to say, he crosses paths with the escaped prisoner -- a man "that wasn't a coward, a man I wished I could be like", he'll later admit -- and learns the next day that Nancy never made it up to Maine.
       It almost doesn't feel that way, given the ugliness that's led there, but Red Lights seems to have a happy ending: Steve certainly seems to come to his senses, and there seems to be a real future for the entire family, but it comes at a huge cost to Nancy. Has Steve escaped the tunnel for good ? Or will the guilt eventually get to him ?
        The abrupt turnaround -- the sudden sobriety, if you will, after all the fuzziness before (Simenon does the bender so well that it's enough to give you a headache) -- seems almost too stark, but it seems plausible enough in this character Simenon has created. At least for these moments: Simenon leaves the rest of the hangover for the reader to ponder, such as the price Nancy has to pay for Steve's sudden nobility -- her fall and shame (which everyone will have read about in the newspapers) a trade-off that almost seems just fine with him.
       Simenon is great on the details, his eye catching the right ones and bringing the story very much to life, even as he recounts what seems inconsequential. The rushed feel common to many Simenon novels isn't much of a problem here, while the resolution seems a bit extreme given the limits of the novel (tellingly, Simenon keeps the kids out of sight for the duration). Still, a good, disturbing read.

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Red Lights: Reviews: Feux rouges - the film (2004): Georges Simenon: Other books by Georges Simenon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote hundreds of books, and is especially famous for his detective-fiction.

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