Pop. 1280 is the seventh and last reading in the Jim Thomson noir-fest I am going along with this month, and it marks a big change from the others. It has a lot in common with the American tall tales tradition that I know from Poe and Ambrose Bierce, and like them, its tone is one of dark comedy – very dark. In keeping with this, the plot is a bit outlandish and convoluted, but the style frees Thompson to deliver some brilliant material, including heavy dollops of social satire and criticism.
Nick Corey, the protagonist, is another of Thompson’s unreliable narrators, and we get the story from him alone, a first-person tale. At first we think he’s plumb stupid, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and the victim of some of their mean-spirited tricks. Then we begin to wonder how stupid? Towards the end, Nick becomes a bit delusional, associating himself and his ‘mission’ with the will of God. He ends as he began, without any notion of what the heck to do, and ain’t we all like that in life?
The story is set in the early 20th century, although Thompson does very little to keep up the period atmosphere. Maybe he was just getting nostalgic for the world of his father, also a failed sheriff. Throughout this novel, as with no other I’ve read by him, I found myself noting choice passages that sizzled with ghoulish satire.
Since this is a tall tale, Nick has some out-sized characteristics: he’s incredibly stupid, or seems so; he’s incredibly crafty; he’s unbelievably attractive to very pretty women; his voracious sexual appetite is matched only by his intake of food:
I’d sit down to a meal of maybe half a dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy…
Along about ten the next morning, when I was having a little second breakfast because I hadn’t eaten much the first time but a few eggs and some pancakes and sausage, Rose Hauk called.
Like any Thompson narrator, he has his share of mental and developmental issues, but unlike those other psychopaths, Nick is philosophical. Here he explains why he holds no grudge against his father for the ferocious beatings given him, and in the process, puts his finger on the source of a host of social ills:
I don’t fault him much for it any more, because I’ve seen a lot of people pretty much like he was. People looking for easy answers to big problems. People that blame the Jews or the colored folks for all the bad things that happen to ’em. People that can’t realize that a heck of a lot of things are bound to go wrong in a world as big as this one. And if there is any answer to why it’s that way- and there ain’t always-why, it’s probably not just one answer by itself, but thousands of the answers.
But that’s the way my daddy was – like those people.
Nick is also a bit of a poet when love is involved. At one point, he quotes Oscar Wilde to an antagonist, saying, “we all kill the thing we love.” Here he describes the farm of one of his lovers, who has managed to maintain her allure despite being beaten by her no-good husband:
It was that rich black silt you see in the river lowlands; so fine and sweet you could almost eat it, and so deep that you couldn’t wear it out, like so much of the shallow soil in the south is worn out. You might say that land was a lot like Rose, naturally good, deep down good, but Tom had done his best to ruin it like he had her.
As the story progresses, Nick becomes concerned with just what is his motivation? Does he even know why he does what he does? Does anyone? Are we responsible for what we do? He has a little philosophical dialog with a detective who has come to ensnare him in a murder trial. Over drinks, the detective becomes a bit maudlin and Nick raises the spectre of Determinism:
Does the fact that we can’t do anything else – does that excuse us?
Well, I said, do you excuse a post for fittin’ a hole? Maybe there’s a nest of rabbits down in that hole, and the post will crush ’em. But is that the post’s fault..?
But that ‘s not a fair analogy, Nick. You’re talking about inanimate objects.
Yeah? I said. So ain’t we all relatively inanimate, George. Just how much free will does any of us exercise. We got controls all along the line, our physical make-up, our mental make-up, our backgrounds: they’re all shapin’ us a certain way, fixin’ us up for a certain role in life…
Finally, Nick goes loco, and starts to see himself as the instrument of God and Jesus. In some of his rantings, he seems a parody of the Bible-thumping, self-righteous, ‘family values’ conservatives of our own day:
Y’see, I got my job to do, Rose; I got to go on bein’ High Sheriff, the highest legal authority in Potts County, this place that’s the world to most people here, because they never see nothin’ else. I just to be High Sheriff, because I’ve been peccul-yarly an ‘ singularly fitted for it, and I ain’t allowed to give it up. Every now an’ then, I think I’m going’ to get out of it, but always the thoughts are putin’ in my head and the words in my mouth to hold me in my place. I got to be it, Rose. I got to be High Sheriff of Potts County forever an’ ever. I to go on an’ on, doing’ the Lord’s work; and all he does is the pointing’ Rose, all He does is pick out the people an’ I got to exercise His wrath on ’em. and I’ll tell you a secret, Rose, they’s plenty of thems when I don’t agree with Him at all. But I got nothing to say about it.
And how’s this for comic relief, as he reveals that he killed off his lovers excuse for a husband:
Finally, the words came out in a shaky whisper:
You’re sure, Nick? You really killed him?
Let’s just say he had himself an accident, I said, Let’s just say that fate dealt him a crool blow.
But he is dead? You’re sure about that?
I told her I was sure, all right. Plenty sure. If he ain’t, he’s the first live man I’ve ever seen who could hold still while he was getting kicked in the balls.
Rose’s eyes lit up like I’d given her a Christmas purty.
The sexual escapades are also a lot more explicit in this book than his earlier novels. At one point, he isn’t in the mood for sex, so he fakes an injury to his groin from a horse kick. After a little conversation in bed, his mood changes:
Hey now! she said. Just what’s going on here, mister?
What does it look like? I said.
It looks to me like a big business recovery.
Well, god-dang, gee-whillikins! I said. And right after a severe blow to the economy! You reckon we ought to celebrate the occasion?
What the hell you think? she said. Just let me get these goddam clothes off!
Jim Thompson was a member of the Oklahoma Communist Party, and his knowledge of the 1950s McCarthy Scare was clear in A Swell-Looking Babe. The main character’s father was ruined by a false accusation of political impropriety. Nick, who studiously avoids real work in his post as sheriff, helps start some very foul stories about his challenger in the next election, but he’s careful to avoid the appearance of being the instigator. Finally, he puts in the knife, as they say:
Well, this is about them dirty stories people are tellin’ on you, I said…I know Sam [his challenger] wouldn’t rape a little colored baby or steal the gold teeth out his grandma’s mouth or beat his pappy to death with a stick of cordwood or rob a widder woman of her life’s savings or feed his wife to the hawgs, I know a fine fella like Sam wouldn’t do nothing like that. So all I’m askin’ is this; this is my question…If them stories ain’t true, how come them to get started? How come almost everybody claims they are true?
And sometimes, Thompson just gets in his own private zingers, as in this exchange between Nick and the philsophical detective from the Talkington (read Pinkerton) Agency:
Let’s see now, you broke up the big railroad strike, didn’t you?
That’s right. … The railroad strike was one of our jobs.
Now, by golly, that really took nerve, I said. Them railroad workers throwin’ chucks of coal at you an’ splashin’ you with water, and you fellas without nothin’ to defend yourself with except shotguns an’ automatic rifles! Yes, sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!
Now, just a moment, Sheriff!
In some ways, this is my favorite one of the whole series!