Book Review: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller

By way of introduction let me emphasize that Henry Miller is one of my favorite writers.  His writings changed my life, changed my attitude towards writing and towards literature.  “Tropic of Cancer” is one of my favorite books of all time – there is scarcely a word misplaced in it; every word, every phrase is a thing of beauty and awesomeness.  I had been looking for this book, “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” for some time when I came across it at a used book store in Pike Place Market on the waterfront in Seattle.  Even so, it took me years to get around to reading it.  I’m not sure why.  I think I was waiting for just the right mood, the right life-circumstance in which to savor it.

Having just finished it, I have to say that it was the weakest of all the books by Henry Miller that I have read up to this time, and I have read many of them.  If you want to read Miller – and I heartily recommend that you do – do not begin with this one.  I expected a grand tour of the United States told in the witty, acerbic, verbose, artistic style to which I had become accustomed when I picked up a Miller tome.  Instead, well, I almost stopped reading a few chapters in, for two reasons.  First of all, in one of the first chapters in the midst of a description he launches into one of the surrealist passages that I admire so much in “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn”.  In those books they serve a definite purpose, but in this book, ostensibly a travelogue/memoir, they do not.  It is distracting and disconcerting; it is like a red herring in the midst of a natural landscape.  Secondly, after the surreal episode, he devotes a whole chapter to reminiscences of Paris.  I love his reminiscences of Paris – in his books on France.  Here it was out of place, and it is at this point that I almost stopped reading, and I very rarely stop reading a book once I have begun.

I persevered, however, and I’m glad I did.  Some chapters have great appeal and are told with wit and humor.  Miller concentrates on several interesting characters, mainly painters but also others, whom he met on his auto journey through the deep south to California.  But it’s a mixed bag – some anecdotes are of more interest than others.  I was hoping for a more focused narrative such as can be found in “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” which he wrote a decade or so later.

Another thing about this book that must be taken into account is that it was written around 1941, when Miller returned to the United States after having been forced out of Europe due to the spread of the Second World War.  The US had not yet become actively involved in the war, though Miller predicted rightly that they soon would be, but some of his observations on life in the US are very much of the times, and thus somewhat dated today.  On the other hand, some of his other musings on the deterioration of American society are dead-on and could have been written yesterday.

Overall what would I say about this book?  Perhaps it had been built up in my mind for too long.  Perhaps I expected too much.  It is entertaining, most of it, and worth the read.  But if you are going to start reading Henry Miller don’t begin with this book.  Start with “Tropic of Cancer”, his masterpiece.  Then move on to “Tropic of Capricorn”.  Then “The Rosy Crucifixion”, a trilogy which includes “Sexus”, “Plexus”, and “Nexus”.  Then a few more.  And then, after having exhausted all the major Miller volumes, read this book too.  One thing is certainly true:  Miller is a writer worth reading, and worth reading extensively, especially by writers seeking freedom of expression and their own voice.

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