Q: Which book has the greatest title ever? A: This one.

George Harvey Bone, 34, doesn't have much. He doesn't have a job and he doesn't have a friend in all of London. What he does have are drinking buddies who barely conceal their contempt for him, an infatuation with a spiteful aspiring actress, and oh yes, a full-blown case of schizophrenia.

While you wouldn't want to trade in your DSM-IV for Patrick Hamilton's peculiar notion of the disease, in Hangover Square's hapless protagonist he created one of the great tragic fools of modern fiction. It's easy to see why he was one of Alfred Hitchcock's preferred writers: This 1941 novel shares with Hamilton's classics Gaslight and Rope the sense of characters suspended over an abyss. The same could be said of the entire city George and his sponging friends inhabit, as they stumble in a drunken haze from one ghastly Earl's Court pub to another in September 1939.

Hamilton gives us sharp shards of this shattering pre-war world: "In the line of telephone booths there were a few other people locked and lit up in glass, like waxed fruit, or Crown jewels." Chatting with friends, they are walled off from George by invisible panes; it's no wonder that he pathetically calls his actress, Netta, thinking, "It was very thrilling to have got right into her flat, right into her bedroom, disguised as a bell, merely by paying twopence."

The dimming gaslights of George's madness are horrific periods of confused but murderous dissociation that he blacks out afterward. But what propels Hangover Square is something less mysterious: the dilemma of a pained and vulnerable man who has the cruelly off-putting desire to be loved. The strangely afflicted George Harvey Bone is a tragic figure not because he is mad, but because he is the sum of all our own worst judgments in friends and desire.

 
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