Craig Heap reviews Patrick Hamilton’s classic novel, Hangover Square
Hangover Square (1941)
Penguin Classics, 281pp
As with the majority of Patrick Hamilton’s novels, Hangover Square is set in the interwar period, specifically on the brink of war in 1939. Hamilton wrote a sort of English noir, preoccupied with the sleazy, salubrious denizens of London’s saloons and back streets. Here, we follow George Harvey Bone and his gang of workshy ‘friends’ as they rise late, drink all day, wake up hungover, walk it off round ‘Hangover Square’ in Earl’s Court and do it all over again.
This period is a low point in George’s life, whose innocence, vulnerability and naivety, coupled with his impressive size, grant him a pathos not unlike that earned by Lenny from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. While he isn’t as simple as Lenny, those who know George tend to believe he is, on account of his ‘dead moods’. George becomes altogether different when these entirely random moods take him, causing him to become reclusive and disassociated from people and events around him.
George’s ‘dead moods’ represent a two dimensional characterisation of schizophrenia; however, Hamilton can be forgiven because, in all fairness, he never references it as such, nor is it the aim of the story. Once this conceit is taken for granted the story can be allowed to progress.
Amongst his drinking companions is Netta Longdon, a woman whom George loves, and whom his other self desires to kill. This dichotomy from his dual selves is where the story lies. Although this is an early, and startling, revelation, we soon find ourselves siding with the part of George that wants to kill Netta. She is a cruel, vapid and bland woman, who desires fame through acting but lacks the intelligence or desire to work. Instead, she relies on her beauty and mean cunning to live, parasite-like, off the men around her. She particularly takes advantage of George’s good nature and infatuation with her, causing him to consider bitterly at one point that she ‘was a sort of prostitute’.
It’s not merely Netta’s abuse of George’s vulnerability but also her outright vicious, passive aggressive attitude toward him. She makes George the butt of the group’s jokes, and egged on, the others support her in this. Perhaps one of the most despicable moments in the novel is when George succeeds in convincing Netta to take a short break with him in Brighton, where he believes he may be able to win her over. Netta sends George on ahead to secure rooms there, and then when she turns up, several hours late, she arrives screaming drunk with a man on each arm, one of whom she later sleeps with. In the morning, after terrorising the hotel staff, Netta and her men depart without saying good-bye to George, leaving him to pay the bill. It’s not difficult then to side with George’s other self and his ambition to kill Netta.
Not long after the Brighton incident, George realises Netta is cruel towards him, and that understanding brings about a desire within George to escape, to leave Earl’s Court and start fresh, without the slumming and heavy drinking. This acts as a counter-point to his other self’s desire to kill her, an alternative outcome we feel is possible and hope for.
While Hamilton is expert at delivering his characters, his pacing misses the mark. Perhaps this has something to do with the time it was written, (1941), compared to modern tastes, but he labours the story for too long and it drags in the middle section, fortunately scattered with a few shining moments to spur it on. The final two sections; however, are excellently constructed.
It’s not merely the pacing which is laboured. The main fault in Hamilton’s writing, and this argument would stand regardless of whether it was being read in 1941 or 2011, is the over-extension of similes, particularly when describing George’s ‘dead moods’. Hamilton describes the transition from George’s normal self to his other self, always beginning with a ‘click’ (or a ‘crack, in one or two scenes) but he then goes on to explain, in elaborate detail, what it is like… ‘It was as though a shutter had rolled down… it was as though the sound-track in a talkie had broken down… it was as though he had dived into a swimming bath and hit his head on the bottom…’
George goes through several ‘dead mood’ transitions throughout the book, and Hamilton’s first in-depth study of this curious happening is crucial. We don’t need half a dozen examples, sometimes repeated, given to us each time, and certainly not in the titular final part of the book, as those quotes were taken from. This is the most obvious of Hamilton’s over-writing but it is prevalent throughout the novel.
Hamilton is best when he is subtle. He references the prelude to war in an offhand way – it is something that is there, and of no real interest for the characters. Given our knowledge now, there is an evident dramatic irony here, particularly as Netta and another of George’s friends are outspokenly pro-fascist. There is perhaps an allegory here, George’s two selves both wanting to befriend and destroy Netta, and in finally achieving his destiny, George destroys himself much in the way the British Empire ruined itself in the fight to stop the Axis powers.
The downward spiral nature of George’s life, of almost crawling out and being sucked in again, is intentionally repetitive, and while necessary, it does engender an anger in the reader. Whether this is a flaw or testament to Hamilton’s writing skill will be up to the individual. Nevertheless, if you persevere through these sluggish, occasionally annoying parts, you will find a haunting and melancholic study into human nature. Hamilton’s fine grasp of human pathos, combined with the high-power tension that comes from pressing down on a man for long enough, brings about the only possible outcome for George Harvey Bone.