I tend to associate Patricia Highsmith with crime novels, but People Who Knock on the Door is a study of human behaviour. This is the story of how one man, a husband and father becomes a religious fanatic. So a story of obsession, self-righteousness, intolerance and hypocrisy. First the disclaimer: I am not religious, but if religion:
1. helps someone be a better/happier person,
2. helps deal with life
3. keeps someone off the streets
4. keeps someone from various deviant behaviours
5. gives your life meaning or structure
then more power to you..
Just don’t come knocking on my door selling your beliefs. It could get ugly. So now that I’ve got that out of the way, onto the book.
The Alderman family consists of insurance salesman dad, Richard, his wife Lois and their two sons: Arthur, who is about to head off to college and Robbie. Richard hasn’t done in well in life as he’d hoped and maybe.. just maybe… there’s a tad of resentment that he married young. Well no matter. Shortly after the novel opens, Robbie has a health crisis and almost dies. He recovers and Richard decides that god intervened. The next thing you know Richard’s a born-again Christian. It’s not so bad at first, but then Richard starts laying down the law regarding Arthur’s love life, and when Arthur won’t bend to his dad’s demands (this involves his girlfriend, Maggie Brewster, getting an abortion, just FYI), Richard closes the purse strings and Arthur’s college plans for Columbia collapse.
There’s the sense that home life chez Alderman wasn’t that much fun before Richard’s conversion, but after that happy event, the domestic atmosphere becomes strained. Lois, who volunteers at a children’s home, becomes Sweden, trying to keep everyone happy (impossible) and Robbie goes along with his dad’s new found faith. And what’s up with Robbie hanging out with all those middle-aged men? (why do I hear banjos?) And why is Irene, a former prostitute, now a born-again waitress, constantly pestering Richard to come over to her place as she’s in desperate need of counseling and may revert to turning tricks if Richard doesn’t come to her house pronto.
“And the Brewsters,” Richard went on with faint contempt. “Are they any better? No, Money doesn’t gloss over their life-style. Nice clothes, a fine house, doesn’t hide anything. And you hang out with them.”
His father was maybe jealous, Arthur thought, as well as off the beam. “They’re certainly not the richest people in this town,” Arthur said.” I don’t think they flaunt their money. Not at all.”
“I’m saying that money doesn’t make arrogance look any nicer. What they flaunt is a lack of human decency, basic morals. I wouldn’t have the Brewsters as my clients. Just tonight, I’m looking through my list again, getting rid of two families, one of them every bit as well-off as the Brewsters. I’m suggesting they go to another insurance investment in town.
Everything in the Alderman house goes downhill. I must say that Arthur showed remarkable restraint towards his father especially after other members of the church, and the ex-prostitute, keep popping up with advice and salient bible quotes. The plot shows how when one member of the family takes the moral highground, using religion, their position becomes unassailable. This story resonated with me as I once worked with a woman whose husband had an affair. Their marriage ‘survived’ but in the aftermath she became born-again and was constantly quoting her pastor at her husband. He was never going to be allowed to forget what he did. I don’t know how he kept sane, but then again perhaps it was their private purgatory. Why knows? I didn’t care for any of the characters at all with the exception of the boozy neighbour next door. Not my favourite Highsmith. Not even close.