ROBERT ALTMAN'S "Prairie Home Companion" opens with a shot of a classic all-night diner, one that is iconic and kitschy, mysterious yet deeply familiar. The beckoning diner is the only source of light and sanctuary, but we wonder, with foreboding, who might be inside, what refugees from the after-hours city streets. We don't know exactly where we are at first, but we know we're in America -- or, at least, in Americana.
It is a scene that Gordon Theisen would undoubtedly have discussed, had the film come out in time, in his new book, "Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' and the Dark Side of the American Psyche," a meditation on the power and complex meaning of Hopper's most famous painting and its enshrinement of the diner as archetypal image of the late-night underbelly of urban America. In Altman's comic and sentimental movie, the sinister magic of Hopper's mid-century diner suffuses the scene with yearning and a kind of desperation, born of the dark, tangled, all-too-human motives that are otherwise bleached out by the strong light of the bourgeois day.
Edward Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, N.Y. -- a town, 25 miles north of Manhattan, he called "intolerably stupid." He left for the city as soon as possible, at the age of 17, and briefly attended the New York School of Illustration and then the New York School of Art, where he studied under Robert Henri. He did the obligatory trips to Europe and exhibited his paintings, most notably in the Armory Show of 1913, but he spent most of his time working as a commercial illustrator.
By the 1920s, he had left his earlier Impressionist influences behind and developed the emotionally stark paintings that capture the alienated loneliness of American modernity, and he began to devote himself full time to his art. His scenes in restaurants, hotel lobbies, train cars and apartments feature depressive figures in an oddly sterile world, clandestine and yet public. The paintings tend to put the viewer in a voyeuristic mode, often having us look through windows, which increases the sense of social isolation even as it gives us a glimpse into private lives. Theisen takes us through Hopper's life and times, arguing that this taciturn, sometimes abusive artist's paintings represent the essence of the American century.
In concentrating on Hopper's masterpiece, Theisen is attempting something like what Steven Biel did recently in "American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting" and Gijs van Hensbergen did in "Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon." They treat Grant Wood and Pablo Picasso as Theisen treats Hopper, but (as their subtitles suggest) they are interested exclusively in the "life story" of the paintings themselves: the circumstances of their conception, gestation, birth, exhibition and influence.
Theisen has a more diffuse and wide-ranging project in mind. Reading his book is like being in the hands of a brilliant conversationalist, a kind of "My Dinner With Gordon," in which he moves from topic to topic in an associational feast that often wanders far from anything we might consider standard art criticism or cultural history -- imagining the characters in the painting as a menage a trois, speculating on the fate of John Garfield and Kurt Cobain, Herman Melville and Jimi Hendrix.
At the center of this experiment in historical imagination is what Theisen dubs "America Noir." Hopper loved Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," which he read in Scribner's in 1927, writing one of the few fan letters in his life in response. In the story, hired killers come into a diner to murder one Ole Andreson, tying up the cook and the only other customer, Nick Adams, while they wait. But when the victim doesn't show up, the hit men untie them and leave. It is this dark diner -- like the one in James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" or, for that matter, in "Pulp Fiction" or "The Sopranos" -- the kind of places that murderers drift into without warning, that Theisen wants us to consider in looking at Hopper's painting.
"Staying Up Much Too Late" encourages us to see the flip side of this image as well: Barry Levinson's "Diner," Jerry Seinfeld's coffee shop, the homey, egalitarian sites of tradition and sociability where all the customers are called "hon" and everyone's coffee is the same size and style, where people from different walks of life sit next to each other at the counter eating the same food, made in the same way at diners everywhere across the country. It is Hopper's genius to get both sides of this equation into his most famous painting, holding the light and dark -- like the fluorescent interior and dark exterior -- in remarkable tension.
It might be more correct to say that Theisen wants us to see both these sides and then a few more. He doesn't seem to be at all afraid of contradiction -- he contains multitudes. Those looking for a straightforward thesis or linear argument will find the book frustrating because, as in jazz improvisation, he takes a basic structure -- an element from the painting, say -- and plays variations on it (the history of that element before the painting, the destiny of that element after the painting). He thus offers readers a quick refresher course in the American cultural past, running through the history of diners, of coffee, of jazz, of technology, of plastic, of urbanization, of photography, of architecture, of cigarettes and cigars, of the porn industry, of advertising, of film noir, and of changing attitudes toward nature, war, sexuality and individualism.
Professional historians will find a few minor false assumptions and may balk at the reduction of historical complexity these mini-histories entail. As quick takes, though, they're effective, if occasionally overreaching. The connection of the woman in "Nighthawks" to Russ Meyer's triple-D vixens, for instance, seems a bit far-fetched. As all these examples and connections pile up, though, Theisen's argument -- that "Nighthawks" somehow encapsulates the secret life of the American 20th century -- becomes more and more convincing.
The book has its awkward passages ("But insofar as he did confound the Victorians with the Puritans, this makes Hopper only more of what we think of as American by bringing him closer to what has become our collective understanding of why we are so conflicted about sex," for instance), but there is also some fine writing, as well as a contagious passion for the experiment he's performing. Readers already familiar with Hopper and 20th century American culture may find that the book doesn't have quite as much news as they would like, but as an introduction to either, it is entertaining and enlightening. Theisen's subtitle promises a look at the dark side of the American psyche, but, thankfully, he presents a much more balanced view of Hopper's artistic achievement. In his ability to focus on pessimism and optimism, communal spirit and alienation, glory and degradation, violence and passivity, Theisen is in tune with this most American of painters. *