A somewhat disappointing book merits a somewhat disappointing and lackluster review. I falsely thought that any words dripped from the pen of Highsmith were bound to be gold, but this was more of a bronze-tinge. Howard Ingham is a semi-successful author who goes to Tunisia on assignment to write a screenplay. When we meet him, he’s impatient to get letters from the chap he’s supposed to work with, John Castlewood, and from his girl back in NYC, Ina. Neither write to him for days, and eventually he finds out that Castlewood had declared his love for Ina then killed himself in Ingham’s apartment. Bizarre and yet you feel somewhat nothing for these facts. Scrapping the movie idea, he begins work on a third? fourth? novel that he names The Tremor of Forgery, working in the morning and evening when it’s not too hot, typing away on his typewriter that he later hurls at an Arab sneaking into his room to steal something and kills(?) him. This whole story is one big question mark, and perhaps that’s Highsmith’s intention.
Ingham befriends a few ex-pats, Francis Adams (aka OWL for ‘our way of life’ which he constantly spews) – an elderly widower who broadcasts secret anti-US radio shows and is paid by Russia; also Jensen, a gay Danish painter.
He picks up and discards people easily, even calling out a quote from Norman Douglas’ 1912 Fountains in the Sand:
He had travelled far in the Old and New Worlds; in him I recognized once again that simple mind of the sailor or wanderer who learns, as he goes along, to talk and think decently; who, instead of gathering fresh encumbrances on Life’s journey, wisely discards even those he set out with.
Ingham finds himself lost in his character, Dennison, feeling adrift in a foreign land:
His face was darker and thinner, different. He was at these moments conscious (as he had been when suffering the gripes at the bungalow) of being alone, without friends, or a job, or any connection with anybody, unable to understand or to speak the main language of the country. Then, being more than half Dennison at theses moments, he experienced something like the unconscious flash of a question: ‘Who am I, anyway? Does one exist, or to what extent does one exist as an individual without friends, family, anybody to whom one can relate, to whom one’s existence is of the least importance?’ It was strangely like a religious experience. It was like becoming nothing and realizing that one was nothing anyway, ever. It was a basic truth.
Ina comes to visit about halfway through the book, Ingham soars on waves of happiness, wants to get married, then retreats, sends her on her way, is ecstatic at receiving a much-forwarded letter from his ex-wife who he plans to try to get back together with in New York.