Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
Steve Hogan and his wife Nancy are traveling by car from their Long Island home to pick up their kids from a summer camp in Maine. The annual trip brings heavy traffic over the weekend, when city dwellers escape to the country. Red Lights portrays the mundane that has turned dangerous, the worst-case scenario brought to reality.
Steve has not admitted his alcoholism to himself or to anyone else. Like many of Simenon’s characters, Steve is dancing on the rim of the abyss, one misstep away from disaster. Simenon gives Steve that little push, not even a shove, closer to a nudge, but it is just enough.
Steve is in denial about his drinking and about his marriage. Steve and Nancy’s marriage is in trouble. They seldom even speak to each other, living their lives in separate orbits.
During the long car trip, Steve and Nancy are left no choice but to interact. Steve is a weak man, and the strain proves too much. He fortified himself with a stiff drink on the way home before leaving for the trip, and he had another drink at dinner, and he needs a third drink instead of just wanting it. A few hours into the trip, city traffic behind them, Steve makes his first tavern stop. Nancy waits in the car.
Another few hours of driving and Steve gets the urge to stop again for another drink. His drinking becomes the topic of conversation between them. If he stops again, Nancy says, she will go on without him. He will have to find his own way to Maine. Steve, asserting his manhood, is in the mood to show Nancy who is boss. He stops at another tavern, and he takes the keys with him.
While sitting at the bar, Steve begins to contemplate the meaning of manhood. What makes a real man? Steadily advancing into a stupor, Steve strikes up a conversation with the strange man who sits down by him at the bar. The radio in the bar plays in the background, and a story about an escaped convict from Sing Sing Prison has the barflies talking. As time passes, Steve begins to imagine that the man sitting next to him is the escaped convict. The man quietly leaves the bar. Steve thinks this stranger, this escaped convict, is a real man.
Enough time has passed, and Steve thinks Nancy will have learned her lesson. He staggers out to the car, gets behind the wheel, and finds Nancy gone. The note that she left says she has walked to the bus depot. In her place is the stranger from the bar. Steve is right; the stranger is the escaped convict.
The convict is Sid Halligan. He has a gun and persuades Steve to drive. It does not bother Steve’s conscience to drive. He thinks Nancy will be fine. As Steve drives on through the night, harboring the criminal in his car, avoiding police roadblocks, he wishes that he had Halligan’s nerve. Steve wishes that he were more of a man, more like Halligan.
Steve drives off the road, waking Halligan. The car has a punctured tire, and Steve is without a spare. Steve passes out by the side of the road, and morning finds him alone with his wallet missing.
With the few bills he has left in his shirt pocket, Steve slowly begins to pull himself together. He calls Maine, but Nancy is not there. Steve walks to a roadside diner. He looks and smells like he has been drinking all night. He attempts breakfast.
As he picks at his food and wonders about Nancy’s whereabouts, the locals discuss a “mystery woman” found along the side of the highway last night. Steve’s ears perk up when the description matches Nancy. Panicked, Steve calls the local hospitals until he finds the right one. He has his car repaired and finds his way to Nancy’s bedside at a hospital in a small Massachusetts seaside town.
Nancy does not want to speak to him. She might be afraid of him or ashamed of herself. Steve does not understand, at first, what has really happened to Nancy. The police spell it out for him. She was raped by Halligan. Nancy blames herself for leaving Steve, and Steve blames his drinking. With help from the police, Steve cleans himself up and begins to act responsibly. Meanwhile, Halligan is finally captured and positively identified by both Nancy and Steve.
As the novel concludes, Nancy believes their marriage had been a happy one but it will never survive this crisis. Steve believes their marriage can survive but that their marriage had not been a happy one for many years. Steve and Nancy come to terms and agree to stay married. They will go on with the kids and with each other, but the future will be different. Steve will stop drinking, and he and Nancy and their family will face life honestly and without fear.
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