Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I gotta give a shout-out to my book club–I probably never would have picked up this book otherwise. Thanks very much, S.


In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Gush, gush, gush! No blood but my praise for this amazing book spills freely forth.

Murder mysteries, thrillers, and dark novels I have read in sufficient number to have a base of experience for this book’s fair assessment. Fitting into, indeed creating, a genre that has come to be known as true crime, this story of the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in a small, quiet Kansas town is a definite, though perhaps surprising, page-turner. It may aid reader enjoyment (is that the word?) not to be a seasoned reader of true crime or crime fiction, as I am not. I am confident the book will satisfy the hungers of realists and the detail oriented, which I am.

The content isn’t nearly as gory as I anticipated, which I suppose is understandable for the dulling effect of the countless atrocities and violent entertainments our culture and I have consumed since 1959. (Vainly, I must add, no, I’m not quite that old.) Still, I expected greater emphasis on and more pages devoted to the details of the killings themselves. Perhaps the resistance to reading it that a close relative who lived through that time expressed—recalling her upset from seeing it in the news—fuelled that impression before my reading. I’m more than glad my expectations were not met. The writer understood that other details matter more.

Author Truman Capote presents in engaging style the fruits of what must have been dozens of incisive interviews and extensive research: an unflinching, comprehensive portrayal, seemingly bias free, of the paths and minds of two murderers and all the people they made relevant to the nation. Situated at the fulcrum of a truly horrible crime—angering, saddening, dumbfounding—the book is more about the killers than the killed. The backgrounds, personalities, and peculiar psychologies of the perpetrators and the victims are all made flesh, as Capote is meticulous and masterful with character detail. Reinforcing the injustice of it all, however, the only available hindsight on this apparently motiveless extinguishing of four human beings inevitably comes from the two death bringers. They claim the real fame, and it is profound infamy.

Capote’s impartial journalism lies at the root of some of the story’s most disturbing effects; he spends pages and pages portraying events through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Such intimacy with his subjects actually made mInColdBlood_covere wonder uncomfortably about Capote’s own moral compass. Maybe I’ll watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote to gain more insight on that. Be reassured: Many sections and closing sentences do frame the story from the moral high ground, and at least a dozen community voices help the non-homicidal reader relate, including those of the case’s lead detective Alvin Dewey and of the family’s closest friends.

Another remarkable literary aspect is the discernible, suspenseful plot that emerges for a story you may be predisposed to know in distillation from start to finish before picking up the text. A chronological time line of events begins with character backgrounds and the discovery of the victims. Then, the story continues with a period of investigation and the adventures of the perpetrators after the murders, which lasts for most of the book. At last, we flash back to the crime’s detail from the two murderers’ viewpoints and learn what becomes of them. I experienced the added suspense of not knowing the killers’ fates in advance. The reader partners with Detective Dewey, discovering the facts as he does.

I admit the prolonged suspense in the last twenty pages or so became irritating where Capote digresses in telling the stories of other famous murderers of the surrounding years. This section read as extraneous humanizing of the Clutters’ killers after so much of that appeared earlier in the book. I can see the interest, if not the modern-day necessity, of imparting that perspective, though: These were not the era’s only sociopaths who didn’t need motive to kill or remorse to move on. This type of person belongs to a breed. Having become partially desensitized from repeatedly viewing multiple seasons of Law & Order: SVU, my personal response to this education was dismissive.

The shock value hardly lessens, even so. Divided into four parts titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner,” the book has impressive fluidity and depth. With the jarring content, its vastness and detail, superb storytelling, and the narrator’s subtle wit, I barely noticed the underlying structure. Third-person omniscient narration dominates the text, and the author’s distant, objective position contributes to its smoothness. The reader remains immersed within the story from start to finish. As a writer, my jealousy and admiration of great storytellers arises when I read books like this one.

Equal parts psychosocial (and sociological) study and compelling artwork, the rendering of In Cold Blood seats it squarely in the category of “classic.” The intricacies of several members of the immediate and surrounding areas of Holcomb County and Garden City, Kansas, emerge in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another literary work I deeply love. Engrossing, fascinating, frightening, and vivid are just a few of the adjectives suitable to describe both stories’ effects on this reader, though in different ways. The common denominator is the way the lesson of life’s preciousness echoes achingly from the pages.

So, I’m on the bandwagon. From concept to print, a model for novel, memoir, and biographical writing, In Cold Blood proves Truman Capote to have been a praiseworthy observer, investigator, journalist, and “non-fiction novelist.” As emotionally draining and psychologically disturbing as it is, I would read the book again. To try again to understand the incomprehensible, to hold onto the endearing Clutter family, and to behold the artistry their deaths made possible. Here come the tears . . . .

I told you: Gush, gush, gush. Five out of five stars.