(Editor’s note: This is the 33rd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Choosing today’s novel is Chris Knopf. The creative director at a New England advertising and public relations agency, Knopf is also the author of three books featuring Sam Acquillo, a former corporate exec turned hard-drinking carpenter and sometime detective on Long Island, New York. His latest Acquillo novel is Head Wounds, which came out earlier this year.)
I know Jim Thompson is a crime writer, though after re-reading one of his books, you wonder. Most of the requisite ingredients are there--guns and blood, cops and criminals, explications on the social habits of the wicked and dispossessed. But you can’t help thinking that Thompson only picked the genre as the most expedient route to his actual goal, which was to delve unblinkingly into the casual depravity of your everyday sociopath.
Of course, The Grifters (originally published in 1963) is first-rate noir, which is where it clearly fits within the contemporary taxonomy of crime fiction. Darkly engrossing and fast-moving, with writing that lacerates when it isn’t being lyrical. It’s a brief trip into the netherworld of the professional con, where fleecing suckers is less an adventure than a routine occupation, complete with its own operating manual--unwritten--and its own lexicon.
The protagonist, Roy Dillon, is a natural at this game. Beguilingly ordinary and unassuming on the outside, the kind of guy everyone likes to talk to, everyone immediately trusts. He’s highly intelligent, resourceful, courteous, and responsible--a paragon of respectability. He’s also utterly devoid of remorse over his chosen profession, and indifferent to the misfortune he bestows upon others.
Then again, you wonder. Roy’s behavior is learned from his mother, Lilly, another citizen of the criminal fringe, who bore Roy when she was barely out of childhood herself. Lilly knew nothing about raising a kid, and could have cared less. In modern terms, you’d say she was a little light on the nurturing instinct. Roy eventually realizes this, and attends to his own survival as best he can, though with a black resentment just a whiff away from abject hatred for his mother.
This is where the two settle until Roy grows into a handsome young man, which Lilly notices, which seems to stimulate her maternal instincts. Though how maternal are they?
Therein lies the true theme of The Grifters. An academic journal might have titled it “A Freudian Study of Oedipal Psycho-Sexual Conflicts Within the Context of Sociopathological Family Dysfunction.” This is what Thompson’s book is really about: the dramatic tension derived from Roy’s sexual confusion about his mother (his carnal love interest is Moira Langtry, an older woman who’s also been living off the grift) and his mother’s unbridled ambition to totally possess her son.
What really makes it interesting is that Roy seems to be, despite himself, drifting toward some vague sense of conventional morality. Just as he cons regular joes out of their cash, a regular joe seems to be conning him into a respectable job--one that would preclude his grifter’s lifestyle. He shows glimmers of conscience after seducing a young, vulnerable woman. As things evolve, the reader is more aware than he is that he’s possibly stumbling into virtue.
As a writer, I’m cursed with attention to style. Thompson reminds me of Henry Miller--gifted, literate, and undisciplined. His prose hurtles along in a voice both naturalistic and poetical, which then suddenly becomes awkward or obtuse. It makes me wonder about his editor, or whether he had one at all. Aside from the casual copy editing, did anyone in the employ of his publisher notice that 80 percent of this book was psychological study and 20 percent was action thriller?
Thompson owes a lot to the pulp writers of his time and before, but he still stands apart. He wrote like a fallen angel, alternately brilliant and profane. Though he had the pulp sympathy for the regular guy, the man on the street. You can hear it in his dialogue, the “Hey, fella, how’a doin’?” rhythms of the American vernacular. Occasionally, the writing has the poise and pitch of the finest literary novelists of Thompson’s era. I sense that he understood his own potential, and was plagued by the fear, justified, that it would never be fully realized.
Interestingly, movie producers are among Thompson’s biggest fans. An amazing number of his novels have been turned into movies, notably The Grifters, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, and Pop. 1280, the last of which morphed into a French film called Coup de Torchon. I think the attraction is partly the fresh story lines and tight dialogue, but also the intimacy of Thompson’s descriptions, the cinematic evocations of this flawed, but ultimately satisfying writer.
I often find cult authors to be well-deserving of their anonymity, but Jim Thompson is consistently fun to read, and usually bracing in his harsh, gimlet-eyed view of the world. Or rather, the underworld, populated by drunks, con men, hookers, gamblers, gangsters, and thieves. It feels like these are all people Thompson knows well, that he’s been there, lived the life they live, and thus is merely reporting on a parallel universe of amorality, one respectable people should only visit vicariously from the safety of their reading chairs and comfortable beds.