Ah, there’s nothing like a dose of Georges Simenon to remind us of the worms lurking just beneath the surface of normality. He really was a master of finding that loose thread that can unravel the whole fabric of one’s existence with a simple tug.
The Rules of the Game, one of the dozen of so novels set in the U. S. that he wrote during the ten years he lived there, is a perfect example. As the novel opens, Walter Higgins, manager of the local Fairfax supermarket in Williamson, Connecticut, father of four (with another on the way), school board treasurer and assistant secretary of the Rotary Club, finds out his application to the local country club has been rejected–for the second time.
“The application meant so much to him. It was important for his family’s place in Williamson society, in society in general.” He takes it hard. “I’ll kill them!” is his immediate, silent response. The rejection undermines his entire sense of self. “They were telling him he wasn’t worthy of belonging to the community,” he thinks. It strips away the facade of respectability he’d worked so hard to establish: “He was simply ashamed, as if he had found himself stark naked in the middle of the supermarket, among his employees and outraged customers.” “That was, in fact, a dream he had often had,” Simenon adds, tellingly.
He begins to question everything around him. He begins to speculate on silent conspiracies against him, on hushed conversations held behind his back. “Somewhere in Williamson, there was at least one person who must be chuckling contentedly at the thought of the clever trick he’d played on Higgins.” The fact that no one mentions the black-balling, that no one reacts or even seems to know of it, offers no reassurance. “It was almost as though everyone was deliberately behaving normally, giving him nothing to latch on to.”
Simenon then reveals just what Higgins has been trying for years to cover up. His mother, an alcoholic, is reporting missing from her rest home and then found dying in a gutter. He returns to his home town in New Jersey to retrieve her and is reminded of everything he’s worked to put behind him. The squalor of the tenement apartments he’d grown up in. The shiftlessness, drunken neighbors. The petty thieves, shirkers, and child-beaters. His own mother, reeling from binge to binge, often abandoning him to sleep alone, cold, and hungry. It’s as if the country club men of Williamson have always been able to smell the poverty he’d managed to escape.
It’s a nightmarish experience that drives the tee-totalling Higgins to drink and to a short breakdown. But he pulls himself up again and returns to the supermarket and his facade of fitting in. Now, however–in apt Simenon fashion–he no longer believes in what he is doing:
He didn’t have all the details worked out yet, but he was sure he was on the right track. The reason people thought he didn’t count was because he didn’t know the rules of the game. Yes, it was a game–like the games of his childhood. He hadn’t known that, maybe because he’d had to start too young, or too low, he, the son, as his mother said sarcastically, of Louisa and that scum Higgins.
But that wasn’t the main thing. What was important was to conform to the rules, certainly, but most of all, to know it was all a game. If you didn’t know that, you could make things impossible for other people.
This, to me, sums up what is so perfect about Simenon’s American novels: this is very much the American dream viewed through the eyes of a European. It’s not a dream of self-advancement, of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps: it’s a game. A slightly different game from the European game of success, with its older and more intricate rules of religion, property, nobility, and class, but a game nonetheless.
Simenon’s view is certainly cynical, but it has something of the attractive bitterness of a glass of Campari. I wouldn’t drink one every night, but these short, intense novels have that same effect of bringing your senses to attention.
Find a copy
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The Rules of the Game, by Georges Simenon
Translated by Howard Curtis
New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1988