Jim Thompson never actually claimed to write capital-L Literature, but today, nearly twenty years after his death, many of his admirers are making the claim for him. Born in a sheriff’s apartment over the Caddo County Jail in Oklahoma in 1906, Thompson, like many good American boys, grew up to be a lot like his father. ‘Big Jim’ Thompson Sr was the popular multi-term sheriff of Caddo County until Oklahoma declared statehood at the turn of the century, and federal auditors began uncovering serious discrepancies in Big Jim’s books. A warrant for the dishonoured sheriff’s arrest was issued and, after Big Jim took off, his devoted deputies refused to serve it.
In many ways, Jim Thompson grew up in his father’s shadow, never managing to be quite so popular (or quite so loathed) as Big Jim himself – but this doesn’t mean Little Jim didn’t give it the old college try. With his father absent for long periods of time (eluding arrest for past crimes, making money to send home, or selling bogus oil-rights to suckers), Jim dropped out of high school to support his family as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas, and quickly learnt how to supply his guests with more than just the keys to their rooms. According to Thompson’s latest biographer, Robert Polito, even as a teenager Thompson ‘moonlighted as a bootlegger, a drug peddler, a grifter, a pimp and a male escort’. His extra-curricular activities often added as much as three hundred dollars to his weekly wage but, at the same time, demanded the sort of manic energy and systematic self-disavowal Thompson could only acquire through heavy boozing. As a result, he began suffering frequent collapses from alcohol poisoning and ‘nervous exhaustion’. These breakdowns were to continue until the end of his frantically unhealthy life.
Like his father, Thompson began disappearing – from his wife and children, and from his jobs. He lived as a hobo, promoted get-rich-quick oil investments, read Karl Marx and dabbled in Wobblie politics. Then he buckled down for a while and worked part of his way through the University of Kansas, where he became the creative writing programme’s star pupil, publishing stories and poems in both the university literary magazine and higher-class publications like Prairie Schooner and Texas Monthly. But after losing enough odd jobs to stuff the résumé of any prospective novelist (stenographic temp, door-to-door salesman, bill-collector, oil-rig foreman) Thompson started making his living as a writer when he discovered the true-detective magazines of the mid-Thirties.
Thompson learnt his craft as a thriller novelist by writing paid-per-word sensationalist exposés of supposedly ‘true-life’ Middle-American atrocities, eventually mastering the sort of purple prose that kept housewives occupied underneath their hair-dryers, and commuters distracted on their trains and buses. (‘The grisly crunching of an axe; the terrified pleading of a woman – choking, groaning. Then – silence!’) The true-crime magazines paid him well for stories with titles like ‘The Illicit Lovers and the Walking Corpse’, ‘Ditch of Doom – the Crimson Horror of the Keechi Hills’ and (my favourite) ‘Oklahoma’s Conspiring Lovers and the Clue of the Kicking Horse’. Like most schlock entertainment, true-crime magazines promised two things: cheap thrills and last-minute morality. The trick was to indulge readers with plenty of weird sex and violence, then lower justice triumphant into the concluding paragraphs on a rope. After the killers popped each other off in a bizarre double murder, or were properly zapped with enough state-funded electricity to illuminate Minneapolis, readers could feel that they hadn’t simply read about terrible happenings – they had learnt something about crime and punishment.
Eventually, true-crime magazines went the way of the pulps, and the ones that didn’t go that way soon tired of Thompson. Moving his family to California, Thompson took a job cleaning plaster off the floors of an airplane manufacturer, obsessively reworked a few old manuscripts, and drank himself into several tizzies. The two constants of Thompson’s life were drinking and excess; he did everything in bursts. He wrote in bursts; he drank in bursts; and when he made money in bursts, he spent it in bursts. After throwing his first unsuccessful novel out the window of a bus, Thompson made a couple of mad-dash trips to New York, hastily typed out some opening chapters and a plot summary, and with the help of Woody Guthrie, sold Now and on Earth in 1941. But despite a few good reviews – and two more books published over the next decade – Thompson didn’t hit his novelistic stride until the early Fifties. Again, in a burst of activity.
Between September 1952 and March 1954,Thompson published 12 crime novels, most of them with Lion Books, one of America’s first distributors of original paperback fiction. Owned by the same company that produced Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics and such slob-oriented monthly men’s magazines as Male and Stag, Lion Books were, in their heyday, noted for their unapologetically tawdry cover-art and blurbs. Often retreating to his sister’s bungalow at the Homestead Air Force Base in Dade County, Florida, Thompson didn’t really write or compose novels so much as perform his narrative rage into the handiest typewriter. His first novel for Lion Books (and certainly his best-remembered) was The Killer inside Me, a tale told by a psychopath masquerading as a down-home sheriff in the Midwest. Thompson drew the plot for Killer out of a manila folder presented to him by his editor, Arnold Hano, but it was the last plot-summary Lion Books tried to hang on him. ‘You unleash a guy like that,’ Hano once said, ‘you don’t try to direct him.’
And unleashed Thompson very definitely was; even the titles of his books testify to a terrible psychic venting – Recoil, Savage Night, The Nothing Man, A Hell of a Woman. In many ways Thompson’s books always carried his readers a little further into pulp-amorality-may-hem than they may have been prepared to go. Certainly his books never failed to deliver those goods touted on the garish tricolour covers: women trussed up on the floor after a beating, or buxomly offering bottled liquor to T-shirted men in dingy, claustrophobic bedrooms. On these covers, as in his novels, it was the women who pursued the men, while the men shrugged anxiously with a sort of uneasy diffidence.
The women of Thompson’s books don’t mind a little rough stuff – not even when they’re being beaten to death. After Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford finishes pasting Joyce Lakeland in The Killer inside Me (‘I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving way at once’), Joyce doesn’t try to run away or fight back, because no matter how bad he treats her she can’t stop loving her man – especially when he gives her just what she’s looking for. What follows is a rather characteristic scene of Thompsonian inter-sexual dynamics:
She couldn’t see; I don’t know how she could. I don’t know how she could stand or go on breathing. But she brought her head up, wobbling, and she raised her arms, raised them and spread them and held them out. And then she staggered toward me, just as a car pulled into the yard.
‘Guhguh-guhby ... kiss guhguh-guh –’
I brought an uppercut up from the floor. There was a sharp crack! and her whole body shot upward, and came down in a heap. And that time it stayed down.
In noir fiction, women are seen as irresistible demonic forces. Once their passion is unleashed, men have got to either watch out, or take off the old boxing gloves. This is because the human animal is, by its very nature, destructive; and since women are more ‘natural’ than men (in the musky way they’re described as smelling, or yearning, or purring, and so on) they are potentially that much more destructive. The men of Thompson’s world (and this is true of most generically-bound male American thriller writers) prevail only so long as they can keep their lids screwed on tight, think straight, and not give in to any of those nasty old animal urges.
To survive in civilisation, thriller writers like Thompson argue, men must learn to dissemble and disguise their animal identities. They must say ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am’ at the appropriate intervals; they must treat their women like ladies even when they’re really no better than, well, women; and they must go about their official ‘police’ duties in such a cursory, affable manner that nobody notices they aren’t getting anything done (unless, of course, it’s some sort of secret mischief). Nick Corey, the high sheriff of Potts County in Pop. 1280, makes his career out of smiling at the right times, and talking like Gomer Pyle even when he’s taking vengeful instructions from the Lord. And Carter ‘Doc’ McCoy of The Getaway uses his face like currency, swapping smiles for confidences while plotting the murders of his business associates, or negotiating the sale of his girlfriend, Carol, to cannibals. Like the long and short-con operators of The Grifters, ‘agreeability’ is ‘a stock in trade’. It’s not who you are, but how you look. And you better look good, or else.
Thompson’s male protagonists are evil, manipulative and utterly dishonest – and this is as good as people get in his world. Like Poe’s Pym or William Wilson, Thompson’s characters endure only so long as they dissemble; once they admit to who they really are, they’re reduced to their essential constituent parts – a spattering of raw flesh, an aimless cry in the dark. These are truly visceral novels. People carve each other with knives, collapse into bloody fragments, or, like the fleeing bankrobber-lovers of The Getaway, are ‘evacuated’ from the anus of America into a Mexican crime-cesspool. The world is shit in Thompson’s books; and the only way to prevail over life is through the ending of it.
The sudden demise of Lion Books left Thompson without a medium for his very peculiar message, since the only other prominent paperback publisher of the time, Fawcett Gold Medal, was looking for slicker, tighter stuff than Thompson could provide. (Gold Medal signature-writers of the time included John D. MacDonald, David Goodis and that thriller writer’s thriller writer, Peter Rabe.) So during the late Fifties, when most of his proposed literary projects couldn’t find a buyer, Thompson went on to do some of his best work for Stanley Kubrick’s early films, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Thompson wrote a few more good novels – three of his best, in fact. But eventually, like one of his own characters, he descended into a sort of alcoholic nonsense world. Even though he was regularly pursued by young male admirers who wanted to walk with him the mean streets of his books (without, of course, getting too involved), Thompson’s writing grew more and more meaningless; as with Charlie Bigger in Savage Night, his body eventually fell to pieces.
Thompson often derided Lion’s ‘lurid titling and blurbing’ of his books, but in many ways Lion provided the perfect package for his product. Like the so-called ‘gritty realism’ of Lion’s jacket art, Thompson’s talent was for the shrill, excessive and obvious – theatrical histrionics, grand guignol melodrama and enough bloody corpses to fill the stage of any revenge tragedy by Tourneur or Kyd. Like Tim Willocks (who writes the Preface to this new Picador omnibus), many of Thompson’s readers were as impressed by the ‘way his name was printed on the covers – sleazy, dynamic and brash’ as they were by his uncompromising genre-busting; and today the resurgent interest in Thompson’s work has been sparked, at least in part, by a contemporary fascination with schlock as artifact.
Jim Thompson was a writer of real narrative energy. His best novels present a vision of America which is horrifically consistent; and he drove the assumptions of his preferred genre to their breaking-point over a series of books that are truly sui generis and disturbing. But at the same time, he’s a terrible narrative technician (unlike MacDonald and Rabe); the emotional hyperbole of his characters verges on the ridiculous; his misogynistic rage is continually embarrassing; and, with the possible exception of The Grifters, not one of his novels works as a sustained piece of fiction – which makes it difficult to accept much of the reverence lavished on him these days.
As an example of both too much reverence, and some devoted biographical research, Robert Polito’s new biography displays an admirable understanding of and enthusiasm for its subject, while assembling some exhaustively researched materials. At the same time, Polito seems to be arguing that Thompson wrote so bad it made him good. Or, in Polito’s words: ‘Thompson detonates the clichés of the hardboiled tradition he inherited – not by seeking to transcend them, as an important writer might be expected to do, but rather by sinking into the clichés so deeply that they are flipped on their heads.’ In other words, Thompson’s often cliché-ridden prose is actually a ‘subversive’ act. As if to emulate Thompson’s rebellion against the world’s morass of non-cliché-ridden, non-subversive prose, Polito stoops to some pretty terrible writing of his own. He refers to coffee as a ‘hot, black brew’ and to Thompson’s direst novels as offering readers ‘an express train to hell’. And before Polito’s finished, he has made a series of far-fetched comparisons between Thompson and Faulkner(both used multiple-viewpoints in their novels), Thompson and Samuel Beckett (both described ‘claustrophobic’ landscapes), Thompson and Nabokov (both wrote about perverts) and even Thompson and Hemingway (both presented male protagonists who lost their penises in the war). It is impossible not to be intrigued by Polito’s detailed attention to his subject; but it isn’t long before you begin to think his enthusiasm is misplaced.