New biography explores the dark world of Jim Thompson, once-forgotten master of spiritual derangement
Savage Art - A Biography of Jim Thompson
by Robert Polito
Alfred A. Knopf 543 pages $30
REVIEWED BY RODNEY WELCH
I'll be frank
don't know much about American crime fiction. My exposure doesn't go too
far beyond Elmore Leonard and Ross Macdonald, and I only know Chandler and
Hammett from the movies. So it doesn't mean much when I say that if there
is a grimmer, nastier, more merciless artist of the underworld than Jim
Thompson, I don't know who he is. But I doubt you do, either.
Writer Jim Thompson in Hollywood Hills, 1975.
Thompson worked on the ragged fringes of the writer's trade. He wrote
20 or so el cheapo "paperback originals"
titles like A Hell of a Woman and A Swell-Looking Babe
between the late 1940s and the early 1960s; the kind of books marketed in
bus stations and drugstores, safe and secure from the literary vanguard.
The cover art was typically sleazy and sinister, and what we now know
as "film noir-ish": scowling men with loose ties; leggy, leering hussies;
half-empty liquor bottles, half-smoked fags, the occasional corpse.
The books could be typical, too, but the best were anything but.
Thompson was a master of the psycho's-eye-view monologue; the world as
seen through a killer's warped gaze. The books weren't literary in the
usual sense, but they weren't really suited for the bestseller list,
either. They were grim, unhappy, often wrenchingly funny books suffused
with a hopeless, sickly, sulphurous mood. They made your skin crawl. They
were fascinating, and still are.
When the paperback market dried up, Thompson went to Hollywood, where
he may or may not have co-written a couple of early Stanley Kubrick
movies. He also unhappily witnessed a couple of adaptations of his own
books, and briefly appeared in Dick Richards' film Farewell, My
Lovely, with Robert Mitchum.
Late in life, Thompson acquired something of a reputation in France,
where existential despair never goes out of style. In his own country, his
books were long since out of print, and the writer himself was a pathetic
old hack awash in booze, bad contracts and poverty. He had a stroke, his
eyesight was shot and he had nothing better to do than starve himself to
death. No more than 25 people attended his funeral.
"Just you wait," he told his wife, as he lay in bed wasting away.
"I'll become famous after I've been dead about 10 years."
He wasn't too far off the mark. The Thompson renaissance which began
accumulating in France flowered by the 1980s, when the novels A Hell
of a Woman and Pop. 1280 were made into the French films
Serie Noire (1979) and Coup de Torchon (1981), respectively;
the latter, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, was an excellent adaptation
and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
By 1985, Thompson's novels were reissued and, following the lead of
R.V. Cassill (who wrote on Thompson as early as 1968), writers like
Stephen King and journals like The New York Review of Books, The
Village Voice and The New Republic declared Thompson the
uncrowned king of the hellish thriller.
Three American films from Thompson books
The Grifters, After Dark, My Swee, and The Kill-Off
produced before the decade was out; The Getaway
rather unsatisfactorily filmed by Sam Peckinpah in 1972
unsatisfactorily remade last year.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Robert Polito and Michael McCauley
assembled a couple of Thompson samplers, then went their separate ways to
write biographies. McCauley was first out of the gate in 1991 with To
Sleep With the Devil. Now Polito weighs in with the one under review.
Thompson's re-emergence is not hard to figure. To begin with, dead
writers are cool, especially ones who were unknown in their lifetime. They
are seen as martyrs
spurned by popular taste and burned at the stake of anonymity. They aren't
vulgar; they don't hawk their books on The Today Show or get their
pictures in Vanity Fair knocking back drinks with Norman Mailer.
But there's something else going on with Thompson. He has continued to
stay in vogue. His books stay in print, there's a t-shirt in his honor,
and the word "Thompsonian" has appeared in the occasional review.
So what's the big deal? Possibly he was simply ahead of his time; the
cracked, free-verse self-absorption you hear in his crazed narrators
prefigures the Age of Punk. He's the perfect ghost for an age more violent
and nihilistic than his own.
Which is not to say that Thompson's art, if you want to call it that,
wasn't wildly inconsistent. The temptation is strong to write him off as
a student of the Quick and Dirty School, where rawness, spontaneity and
immediacy take considerable precedence over craft.
But therein lie the seeds of genius, or something like it. His best
novels are truly inspired: they start out on familiar, small-town turf and
end up in a crazy man's version of the Book of Ezekiel. They are tales
told by monsters, and they have a genuine feel for a monster's unhinged
world view, where the only moral code is that evil is as evil does. One
law for the saved and the damned is oppression.
"The trouble with killing," as Carl Bigelow says in Savage
Night, "is that it's so easy. You get to where you almost do it
without thinking. You do it instead of thinking."
Like Gilles de Rais, the satanic 13th-Century child killer who appears
in J.K. Huysmans' La Bas, the derangement of Thompson's killers
"does not remain merely carnal; it becomes spiritual." Hell, which is
where the books frequently end up, is seen as a haven of rest.
"I reckon that's all," says Lou Ford at the end of The Killer
Inside Me, as he and his pursuers are blown to kingdom come, "unless
our kind gets another chance in the Next Place."
Savage Night's Bigelow, an insecure hit man who compensates for
his diminutive height with tough talk, waits out the end at a Vermont goat
farm that is landscaped with vaginal topiary. It is here that his presumed
lover will hack him to pieces, until all that's left
on this, William Faulkner
his puny inexhaustible voice, sputtering a series of chapters that, like
Carl, gradually diminish in size.
Frank Dillon in A Hell of a Woman (Thompson's true magnum opus)
has it equally bad
sees it, his whole life has been squandered on one bitch after another, so
much so that all women become a blur. But just as they are crowding into
one person, Frank is turning into two; halfway through the book he creates
a new persona, and by the end he's talking out of both sides of his mouth.
The text splits into lines of alternating type, so that we actually
read two stories at once, both of which end with Frank getting desexed.
(It's the literary equivalent of what the Velvet Underground would do
years later with their song "The Murder Mystery," which makes the left and
right stereo speakers sound like they're arguing.)
The Getaway is such a typical bank robbery story that it's
twice been made into a typical action movie. But no movie yet has had the
guts to follow the story through to its end, where Doc and Carol McCoy
evade their pursuers by taking an underground journey through mud, shit
and flies to an island of lost souls, where the objective is to arrange
your own death.
You tell yourself it is a bad dream. You tell yourself you
you, not the others
and have waked up in hell. But you
know better. You know better. There is an end to dreams, and there
is no end to this.
What was it Robert Frost said about home
place where when you go there/ They have to take you in"?
Polito finds an early clue to Thompson's sense of dementia. His
father, Sheriff James Sherman Thompson, was a public "terror to thieves"
and a private terror to his family. Before Thompson was a year old, his
fabled lawman dad was on the run, high-tailing it to Mexico after
investigators found he had padded his $1,500 salary with some $31,000 in
"expenses." He would later gain a small fortune in oil and squander it on
Thompson, according to Polito, was forever ambivalent about his
father; he "ennobled the sheriff whenever he invoked him by name
then ridiculed him under other names, like Lou Ford and Nick Corey [the
brutal sheriff of Pop. 1280]."
Thompson didn't have to look far for inspiration in other instances
either. He got an early start as a drinker by sharing morning toddies with
his grandfather; he was hospitalized for alcoholism as early as 17. He
worked as a hotel clerk
provided no end of material for Wild Town and The Grifters
hoboed, worked in the oil fields, and found encouragement as a writer in
a rather curious environment: the University of Nebraska's College of
A steady stream of work for pulps like True Detective followed.
During the Depression he signed on with a WPA Program, the Oklahoma
Federal Writer's Project, where he wrote, co-wrote or co-edited the usual
WPA tour guides and literary collections. (One of his cohorts, whose
sentimentality he came to despise, was Louis L'Amour.)
Thompson published some reportedly so-so novels early on, but didn't
turn to crime fiction until he was in his forties. He had a lot to say,
and a lot to repeat, and he said a lot of it in the space of a year and a
half. Between September 1952 and March 1954 he churned out 12 books,
including most of the ones on which his reputation will likely rest.
Polito is clearly impassioned by Thompson, but he's reasonable about
him: he doesn't forgive Thompson's bad books or try to ennoble him with
qualities he never had. He has exhaustively researched every nook and
cranny of a writer whose life seems to have mostly existed in the shadows.
He helpfully classes the different types of books Thompson wrote, and
closely analyzes the dispute over Thompson's screen credit for Kubrick's
The Killing and Paths of Glory. (Kubrick, no surprise, comes
off as a first-class prick). Polito has performed a considerable service
in telling Thompson's readers a great deal about a man of whom we have
heretofore known so little.
Sometimes the details can get tedious. There is a depressing, if
possibly unavoidable, attention paid to Thompson's drinking. The story
occasionally moves in fits and starts, and Polito's writing style, at
times, gets ponderous.
One wonders what a meat-and-potatoes man like Thompson would have made
of lines like: "Bara's brooding sensual face, kohl-ringed eyes, and slinky
chiaroscuro of pale arms and dark silks forged an imago of opulent evil at
the crossroads of sex and destruction, eros and thanatos."
Or: "Despite Thompson's equivocation and hazy self-pity, the enduring
ichor from these early wounds blisters the gloss of retrospective tact."
Such lapses are rare, fortunately. As rediscovered dead writers go,
Jim Thompson was the Jane Austen of the 1980s
this book could well extend his posthumous 15 minutes indefinitely.
Rodney Welch frequently writes film and book reviews for POINT.
Jim Thompson is a perfect ghost for an age more violent and nihilistic than his own.