Author: Jim Thompson
Original Pub. Date: 1963
For a refreshing change of pace, I thought I'd review something that isn't a heap of one-star fantasy garbage. Believe it or not, many good books inhabit my overloaded shelves, though a reader of this site (Hi, Mom!!) would rarely know it. Today's pick: The Grifters, one of relatively little-known crime novelist Jim Thompson's best tales of confidence trickery, brutality, depravity, alcoholism, and theft.
It's odd how little Thompson is known, given how many film versions have been made of his books. In 1990, this 1963 book became a movie starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening -- and a good movie, at that. It perfectly captured the tone of a typical Thompson story: grim, twisted, and hilarious in much the same way that Maupassant's short story "The Necklace" is a real knee-slapper.
There are two movie versions of Thompson's The Getaway, although neither of those stick to the jaw-droppingly creepy ending as originally written.* French directors have made more movies from his works and seem to understand their point a lot better than American filmmakers do, and that really ought to tell you all you need to know.
The Grifters chronicles the fall of career con man Roy Dillon, who stays under law-enforcement radar by only working small cons and moving around. His favorite is "the twenties,"** and he's just pulled one of these in the opening -- but he got caught, and he's staggering out of a bar in agonizing pain after a quick and richly deserved blow to the stomach. Roy's mother, who had him when she was an adolescent and raised him . . . oddly, turns up, visiting in town while fixing some races for her mob boss. Roy's shady older girlfriend and the mother, who look startlingly alike (something the movie screwed up -- Thompson's not-so-subtexts really are a little too much for Hollywood, it turns out), don't exactly hit it off. Crime, vice, and depravity ensue, but probably not in quite the way you would expect.
Jim Thompson is set apart from the vast legion of pulp crime fiction writers by his two great talents, which in some of his works -- this one among them -- amount almost to genius, if you like that sort of thing. First is his extraordinary imagination. Like Jack Vance in science fiction and fantasy***, Thompson isn't the first writer to come to mind when the average reader thinks of his genre, but he is perhaps the most original. Any plot twist, any character archetype that's appeared in a hard-boiled suspense novel, well, Thompson used it first, and probably to better effect than whatever writer you're thinking of.
Besides that, Thompson has the extraordinary ability to present his characters objectively. That's much harder than it sounds. Every person makes moral judgments all day long; I usually find that reassuring, myself, liking to live in a world not populated entirely by sociopaths. Thompson clearly wasn't a sociopath himself -- but he was able to write like one. His characters are nasty, and many of them are sociopaths. Since the reader isn't manipulated into justifying or condemning them, one can simply be pulled through the story without getting bogged down in the meaning of it all.
To put it another way, Thompson is postmodern in precisely the way that my favorite ole' standby of the literary movement, Douglas Coupland, isn't. Coupland sees the imminent end of civilization as an opportunity to forge meaning out of every otherwise insignificant event; his characters make as many connections as possible to avoid the existential loneliness of a world without purpose. Thompson's characters live in the same landscape of cheap, disposable pleasures, but they're simply hell-bent on getting them as cheaply and disposing of them as quickly as possible. For them, an unexamined life is the only kind worth living; examination only reveals the rot beneath.
For a nihilistic, haunting, unpleasant great time, call Jim Thompson. The Grifters: four stars.
* For anyone who has seen one of the films but not read the book, the spoiler appears in white text here, because I simply can't resist. Highlight to read: So, at the end of the movies, the two get away clean. In the book, they go to Mexico, where they've found a sort of retired-criminal resort paradise where they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains in comfort and security. What they don't know, until they get there, is that you can live there forever as long as you can pay. Food, lodging, anything you want and on any level of luxury: it's all available, but all for a price. Once their money starts running out, they start cutting back on their expenses. And once the criminals' money is gone, they tend to want to leave, but sadly, they can't -- that's another bit of fine print not publicized in advance. All the residents get, at that point, is a daily ration of stew, on the house, until they don't even get that anymore. What's in the stew? Yep, that's what's in the stew.
** I once had someone try this on me when I was working retail, and I was very proud of the fact that I was able to correctly name the con due to a youth (obviously not entirely) misspent reading Jim Thompson. For those of you who are interested: you pay for something small with a twenty dollar bill. You get your change, and as the clerk has just handed it to you, you fish the necessary dollar out of your pocket. With an ingenuous smile, you say, "Oh, wait, I have exact change," and hold out your hand expectantly while handing over the dollar. The clerk, if the con is working, will say, "Oh, right, your twenty," and hand it back to you, at which point you should have gotten into your car and away before he quite catches up. Bingo, nineteen free dollars. Of course, this would have been a much more attractive game in 1963, when nineteen dollars was worth about what $140 is now.
*** Although I would hesitate to compare them in any other way, as they differ in all others. Someday I'll write about Jack Vance. In the meantime, please read any one of his amazing books immediately.