The Grifter’s Guide to America

Jim Thompson was, by his own admission, a bad boy. Born in the tiny boomtown of Andarko in the Oklahoma Territory, James Myers Thompson had an upbringing that was simultaneously rugged and eccentric. His father, a man whom he called “Pop” but the US government called James Thompson, tried to make a living at a variety of professions. The elder Thompson was a Republican politician, an oil roughneck, a farmer, and, at the time of Jim’s birth, the sheriff of Caddo County. As the younger Thompson would relate in his autobiographical work Bad Boy, his father had to flee to Mexico because his political rivals accused him of corruption and embezzlement. “Everyone knew he [the elder Thompson] was honest,” but he was “without friends, and with an overwhelming host of enemies who intended to see that he was given no time to adjust his accounts.” Thompson, sr. would spend years in Mexico before he returned as homespun Nietzschean “superman” dedicated to learning everything.

Thompson also claims in Bad Boy that his father and the whole Thompson clan got a raw deal in Oklahoma because they had roots in Pennsylvania and because they supported Abraham Lincoln’s legacy of racial equality. Thompson would return to this theme in arguably his best novel, 1964’s Pop. 1280. Later made into the acclaimed French film, Coup de Torchon, Po. 1280 tells the story of Potts County Sheriff Nick Corey, a seeming simpleton who, when not guarding his true personality behind a veneer of idiocy and idleness, judges the citizens of Potts County, Texas as a pack of sinners and racists. Sheriff Corey’s mockery of Texan attitudes comes across with bitter venom when he tells one of the county’s political fixers that he’ll enforce the law “Providing o’course, that he’s [the criminal] either colored or some poor white trash that can’t pay his pole tax.” Elsewhere, Corey ridicules the idea that black Americans are naturally inferior, even to the lowliest of whites.

Such commentary would be lauded as progressive by most left-wing book reviewers, but the problem is that Sheriff Corey is a sociopath. Pop. 1280 is all about Corey’s murder of social rivals and his devious manipulations of those around him, from his many lovers to even his wife, who is herself carrying on an incestuous affair with her mentally challenged brother.

Pop. 1280 perfectly crystallizes the two biggest themes of Thompson’s work—the corruption of small Southern and Southwestern towns and extreme absurdity. The former is best characterized by Thompson’s psycho sheriffs, from Corey to the better-known Deputy Lou Ford in 1952’s The Killer Inside Me. Thompson’s best known novel, The Killer Inside Me is narrated by Ford, who is a scheming murderer who uses both his position and his penchant for playing the fool in order to cover-up his initial crime of killing a bordello’s madam. If Thompson is to be believed, then Corey, Ford, and all the other devious lawmen of his oeuvre were based on a real Far West Texas deputy who threatened to kill Thompson one day out on some lonesome oil derrick.

“Lived here all my life,” he went on softly. “Everyone knows me. No one knows you. And we’re all alone. What do you make o’ that, a smart fella like you? You’ve been around. You’re full of piss and high spirits. What do you think an ol’ stupid country boy might do in a case like this?”

After this foreboding showdown, the unnamed deputy pulled out a pair of black gloves. Before murdering his numerous victims, Lou Ford does the exact same thing.

Thompson’s novels are full of such characters—violent, ill-tempered, and dangerous yokels whose lives revolve around whisky, women, and revenge. Also common are young upstarts, like the suave bellhop Dusty Rhodes in 1954’s A Swell-Looking Babe. Rhodes, another stand-in for Thompson, who worked away Prohibition as a sleep-deprived and drunken bellhop in Ft. Worth, has the bad luck to meet a modern lamia named Marcia Hillis.

Thompson’s work more often than naught focuses on the tragic lives of society’s losers. The Alcoholics (1953) examines life at the bottom through the eyes of sanitarium director Dr. Peter S. Murphy. 1963’s The Grifters is Greek tragedy for the TV and car chrome era, with career criminals son Roy Dillon and mother Lilly Dillon both sucking the life out of each other in the name of (unnatural) love and (illegal) profit. After Dar, My Sweet (1955) puts a punch-drunk pugilist and mental ward escapee at the center of a cock-eyed kidnapping plot hatched by a beautiful woman and an ex-cop.

Thompson, like contemporary David Goodis, imbued the world of cheap paperbacks with gutter poetry. The high life of the postwar economic boom cannot be found in Thompson’s bibliography. Instead, economic hardship, desperation, and fatal character flaws interact in a netherworld that only exists in order to make easy money. Although Thompson despised the morality of detective fiction, and as such his novels focus on common criminals, his novels almost always demystify crime.

For example, 1958’s The Getaway, which was filmed in 1972 and stars Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as bank robbers Carter “Doc” and Carol McCoy, sees its criminals successfully escape down to Mexico. However, they find sanctuary in El Rey, a place where cons can live free so long as they spend a certain amount of money every year. When their stolen loot dries up and they can no longer pay the exorbitant cost of living, the criminals turn to cannibalism, murder, and suicide in order to pay the toll. The hellishness of El Rey makes an infamous appearance in the film From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, which includes a pair of murderous bank robbers running into a Mexican bar full of vampires.

It is easy to attach such Gothicism to Thompson’s work. Despite Thompson’s earth-y personality and his radical materialist background as a writer for the Works Progress Administration and a member of both the IWW and the Communist Party USA, Thompson’s most haunting works are supernatural. 1953’s Savage Night is a delirious fever dream about a dwarf assassin named Carl Bigelow who gradually loses his mind while hunting down a target at an upstate New York teacher’s college. Savage Night not only features Bieglow’s first-person narration of his own murder via an ax, but it also has at least one dream sequence featuring Bigelow farming a field entirely composed of female genitalia.

Called the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” by Geoffrey O’Brien, Thompson is arguably one of the most distinctly American authors ever, but he is also one of the more neglected geniuses of our culture. Because he toiled in the pulps (a decision Thompson could not escape given his desire to write a truly proletarian literature), Thompson is mostly cast aside as a genre man—a craftsmen rather than an artist who churned out noir thrillers for the working man. There is truth to this summation, but it is equally true that Thompson penned readable novels about America’s fringe that contained complex interactions with ancient tragedy, nihilistic philosophy, and secular ruminations on sin. Thompson himself embodied these complexities. A highly intelligent autodidact who falsified his high school graduation records after spending over four years as a freshman, Thompson managed to briefly attend the University of Nebraska, Lincoln all the while suffering from alcoholism and drifting between a series of odd and strenuous jobs like night watchman and bootlegger.

Men and writers like Thompson don’t exist in modern America, and they really are not allowed to exist. The publishing industry today has no middle ground between the exclusive and overwhelmingly elitist and liberal world of the “slicks” and the dangerously anarchic realm of online self-publishing. Thompson’s wildcat life is rarely if ever emulated by the contemporary crop of fiction writers, most of whom are graduates of prestigious schools and veterans of the literary-academic complex. Such writers cannot talk to the common man, whereas Thompson still holds the populist touch. Why? Because reading his fearsome books requires no class baggage or knowledge of political signs and signals. Thompson wrote like a demon and lived hard, and his novels all deal with the crooked human soul at its most foul. Such a theme is timeless.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. There is something about the pulp author that feels genuine in large part because of the absence of academic pretensions, but this belies the actual ability of the academic to compete. The resilience of the academic institutions as static bodies is the only thing that keeps pumping more of the literati out into the realm of fiction writing, now long after the last ember of genuine creativity has gone ashen cold. It is inertia.

    It is not just that there are no more authors like Thompson around – there are no authors at all. There are writers, to be sure, but in the realm of artistic creativity we are well past the point in which the written form suffices to expressed the agonized writhing of our dying civilization as necrosis creeps closer to the cultural core. Only the critic survives in such an age, for he is the only useful species of creator left.


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