A Swell-Looking Babe

This vintage cover of Jim Thompson’s novel changes one of the striking details of the story – the babe had lustrous gray hair.  Was it real, or was it dyed to match the color of his mothers’?  That’s just one question that lingers after finishing this not-so-hot story by the great JT:   definitely my least favorite so far.

Dusty is an exceptionally handsome young man working as a bell hop in a high-class low-class hotel, and supporting his father, a broken man.  Of course, Dusty is twisted, and not surprisingly, he is twisted in an oedipal way too.  The babe, Marcia Hillis, seamlessly takes the place of his dead mother in his mind, the All Woman.

I found the plot too intricate and contrived for my taste, and the exact role of Marcia in the inevitable botched heist was not clear to me at the end.  The story seemed to move backwards, like the wonderful film, Memento, even as it moved forward.  The characters weren’t as thrillingly awful as in other Thompson novels, although Tug, the gangster, has a few good turns, and the lawyer, Kossmeyer, is a wonderful and original bit part player.

The most interesting thing about the novel was the point of view employed.  Unlike The Killer Inside Me and A Hell of a Woman, which have first-person narration by the main character, both of whom are mentally deranged, this one is told by an omniscient speaker.  (Incidentally, the first-person narration raises some problems at the end of A Hell of a Woman, similar to quandary in the film Sunset Boulevard, which is related by a man floating dead in a swimming pool.  And while we are at it, some suggest that the entire film Point Blank, is the imagining of the dying main character.)

This omniscient storyteller focuses mostly on the workings of Dusty’s mind, so we get most of the tale from his point of view, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that his version of events is not very reliable.  So, we have an all-knowing narrator who mostly gives us the thoughts of one character who thinks he has it all figured out, but who is actually pretty clueless.  It’s a nice trick.

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