Doggone it!

May 29, 2011

I don’t think it’s a joke:  the Nazis believed all sorts of outlandish things.  Now it comes out (why now?) that they had a project to train dogs to speak and perform military tasks.  They wanted to create an army of Nazi dogs!

In 1998, I read The Lives of the Monster Dogs, a novel that takes place in Manhattan in 2008 when a bunch of walking, talking dogs, with Prussian accents, become celebrities.  They escaped from a remote town founded by a Prussian officer hoping to do exactly what the Nazis wanted to do.  I guess the author, Kirstin Bakis, scooped the news long ago.

And on the topic of talking dogs, Jim Thompson’s novel, The Golden Gizmo, a macabrely comic tale, features a deadly Doberman that talks and sings along with hymns.

Hell’s High Sheriff

May 16, 2011

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!

A Swell-Looking Babe

May 2, 2011

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.

The Getaway

April 29, 2011

I enjoyed this movie a lot, but after reading Jim Thompson’s novel from which it is adapted, I can only say, “Whaa..?”  Well, movies and books, two different mediums, and no reason to expect one to be faithful to a story taken from the other.

Peckinpah’s film from 1972 keeps elements of the story and the characters, but transforms Doc McCoy and his wife Carol into 1960’s anti-heroes.  Doc’s borderline psycho nature is subsumed into McQueen’s super-cool persona, and his brutal string of murders, of criminals and innocents alike, are morphed into gutsy bravado and revenge against really bad characters.  The movie is a crime-action flick; the book is a descent into hell, not material for a blockbuster.

A common theme in Thompson’s books is male abuse of women.  And I mean abuse!  Rudy, the psychopath accomplice to Doc, hides out at a veterinarian’s house and forces the doctor to treat his gunshot wound.  Noticing the vet’s wife, he instantly, as do all these characters, recognizes a fellow traveller in corruption and degradation.  He initiates his sexual affair with her by knocking the wind out of her with a furious kick to the stomach.  Strangely, that element of the book is represented only by Doc McCoy viciously slapping his wife in a roadside encounter, although in the book, he never raises a hand against her.

Unlike the happy ending of the film, in which the loving couple get away with the money to Mexico after eluding the police with clever ruses, including a brief, compacted stay in a garbage truck, the book simply dives further and further down.  First, with a two-day claustrophobic stint of hiding in a partially submerged cave, then a few days inside a massive pile of steaming farm manure, and finally a dreamlike finale in hell itself.

Thompson doesn’t write ‘crime’ or ‘suspense’ novels.  He is a philosopher-poet of social and mental hell.  He’s also a great writer.  As Carol and Doc speed away at night, he tell us:

Silence closed over the car again. They raced through the headlight-tunneled night, and the black walls snapped shut behind them.  Time and space were the immediate moment.  Behind and beyond  it there was only darkness.

Jim Thompson

April 28, 2011

I am not one for mystery novels, but I enjoy visiting the Mysterious Bookshop in lower Manhattan near where I work.  It’s a large, airy store, with couches, and lots of displays, and the people are friendly.   I purchased a massive anthology of crime pulp to pass the time on my commute.  (I believe the editor owns the store). There I found a copy of Jim Thompson’s A Hell of Woman tossed onto a shelf of miscellaneous books.

I wouldn’t call Thompson’s book a mystery by any means.  That’s not his style.  Crime, murder, brutality, ice pick sharp dialog, and a fair amount of suspense – did I say insanity – are what hold your attention.  Waiting for the denouement  Agatha Christie style, it’s not.  Perhaps I’m not fair to the mystery genre, but that’s me…

Once I read A Hell of a Woman and realized Thompson’s connection with Stanley Kubrick, and the films The Grifters and The Getaway, I knew I’d read more.  One thing, one comment lead to another, and now Tilting Planet is having a Thompson Noir Fest, and I’m getting the jump on it!

Thompson’s novels -the ones for the Fest are shown above – make an interesting bookend to the Black Mask stories.  Those are shorter, of course, and mostly written decades before, so the sex and violence is much less explicit.  For the most part, the Black Mask tales exemplify the hard-boiled style:  detectives are either macho or quiet, intelligent, crafty types; dialog is clipped, emphasizing declarative sentences.  The style seems to heavily favor the passive voice:  things just happen.  The characters react. There is often emphasis on detection, deduction, and mystery rather than on suspense and vérité crime; and the baddies are simply bad, perhaps perverse, but not usually sickos.

Thompson, from the first two I’ve read (Hell of a Woman and Killer Inside Me), true to his monniker, the dime store Dostoyevsky, favors first-person narratives by disturbed individuals, sometimes in throes of deep mental disorders.  Things always go from bad to worse, and no rational detectives guide the action to a satisfying conclusion.  Just when you think that things can’t get any sicker, they do.  It keeps me reading!