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Book Review: The Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories by Ernest Lehman

March 4, 2010 2 comments

Black and white image of the hood of a car.Summary:
A collection of Ernest Lehman’s noir style short fiction, including The Comedian and The Sweet Smell of Success, which was turned into a film in the 1950s.  Varying in length from flash to many pages, most of the stories address the damage caused to individuals by the overly hungry theater, movie, and television industries.  Some of the stories also look at individuals suffering from discontent in marriage.

Review:
My first entry in my reading challenge to read books I bought for university but never got around to reading.  This was assigned for my Film Noir class in conjunction with watching The Sweet Smell of Success.  I loved that class and at least enjoyed the assigned books that I read at the time.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for these short stories.

Lehman’s writing doesn’t just evoke the past of the 1950s, it evokes an alternate, incredibly depressing universe.  I have the feeling that was his point in writing these stories.  The entertainment industry is evil and will slowly rob you of your soul.  There’s definitely merit in that, but it can get a bit depressing and redundant to read the same theme over and over again.

I also found the dialogue jarring.  The characters do things like call other men “baby,” and I can’t help but wonder if people actually talked like that back then.  It made the stories ring a bit more fake to me than I think they should have.

Three of the stories revolve around press agent Sidney Falco and columnist J. J. Hunsecker.  While I enjoyed these short stories it felt as if someone had ripped out three chapters from a back and handed them to me out of order.  I wish Lehman had written this as a book or novella.  He clearly had an affinity for these characters, as he repeatedly came back to them to explore them, so I wonder why he never just wrote a long piece about them.

The Comedian though is where Lehman hits his stride in this style and theme.  He takes just the right amount of time to tell the story.  He subtly lets us know the background information vital to feeling something for these characters on this crucial day, and the overarching them of the story is deeper than “the entertainment industry is evil.”  Oh, it is still represented as bad, but that is not the main point of the story, which makes it stronger.  I recommend reading this short story if you can get your hands on it.

Overall, if you’re in the mood for a marathon session of dark noir, you’ll enjoy this book.  Otherwise, I’d recommend finding one of the short stories to get a taste of the 1950s version of the genre.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: University bookstore

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