Friday, July 03, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Criminal,” by Jim Thompson

(Editor’s note: This is the 55th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s choice comes from Nate Flexer, author of The Disassembled Man, an “unrelentingly dark” new psycho noir novel from New Pulp Press. Flexer is the pseudonym of New Pulp proprietor Jon Basoff.)

With sleazy cover art and over-the-top titles, Jim Thompson’s books often appeared indistinguishable from all the other cheap paperbacks being churned out in the 1950s by publishers such as Gold Medal and Lion Books. But Thompson, nicknamed the “Dimestore Dostoyevsky,” created some of the most poignant literature of the 20th century. Employing unreliable narrators, a wicked sense of humor, and surrealistic imagery, Thompson helped transform the derided pulp genre into art. His most well-regarded works--The Killer Inside Me (1952), Savage Night (1953), A Hell of a Woman (1954), and Pop. 1280 (1964)--all used the disconcerting technique of casting madmen to narrate his tales (filmmaker Stanley Kubrick called The Killer Inside Me “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”). But it was a little-known 1953 novel called The Criminal that perhaps best showed Thompson’s concern for the disintegration of our collective morality.

The Criminal centers around the heinous murder and rape of a teenage girl named Josie Eddleman. Almost immediately, suspicion surrounds Bob Talbert, a teenage neighbor of the victim and the last person to see her alive. But as the novel weaves towards its ambiguous ending, Bob’s guilt or innocence becomes largely irrelevant. No, the audience never does find out if Bob Talbert is guilty of rape or homicide--although he is certainly guilty of something. But then again, every character in this novel is guilty of something. In fact, despite its title, this book is more a study of the jury than the criminal, a study of collective guilt.

One of the more fascinating elements of Thompson’s writing was his constant experimentation with narration. Unlike most pulp novelists, Thompson eschewed a straightforward telling of his yarns, instead creating narrators who are extraordinary for their unreliability. While Thompson was a gifted storyteller, his major strength comes from his psychological portraits. Motives are rarely what they appear to be. Rare, too, is the character in a Thompson novel who has a moral center; rather, we see men and women who are overwhelmed by their own devious thoughts and uncontrolled passions. In The Criminal, Thompson provides not one, but nine different voices. Each of those voices has his/her own version of the truth, but we as readers soon find it apparent that none of those voices really provides the truth, that perhaps there is no single truth, at least not one without prejudice. It is important to note that Jim Thompson was heavily influenced by William Faulkner, and The Criminal certainly has echoes of Faulkner’s Southern Gothic masterpiece, As I Lay Dying (1930), both in terms of theme and narrative technique. And while perhaps The Criminal doesn’t match the narrative genius of As I Lay Dying, it comes mighty close. Thompson lacked Faulkner’s lyricism and uncanny sense of place, but he matched Faulkner in terms of dark humor and social understanding.

Before Thompson became a fiction writer, he was a journalist, and he shows a healthy amount of cynicism for the profession and how the media can create an alternative reality. The newspaper reporter in this novel, a man named Bill Willis, is able to manipulate the public into figuratively crucifying Bob before any evidence is actually presented. Because Bob is known as a sub-par student and all-around slacker, Willis is able to feast upon the public’s tendency to stereotype, and turn a truant into a murderer.

While The Criminal doesn’t contain the spectacular brutality of some of Thompson’s other works, there is a kind of weary resignation evident throughout its pages. Early in the book, Bob’s father says: “You just rock along, doing the things that you have to, and you get kind of startled sometimes when you stand off and look at yourself. You think, my God, that isn’t me. How did I ever get like that? But you go right ahead, startled or not, hating it or not, because you don’t actually have much to say about it. You’re not moving so much as you are being moved.” And later the D.A’s wife muses: “Isn’t it terrible? You’re just like you always were, the very same person, and suddenly that isn’t good enough anymore.”

Some readers may find the ending of The Criminal a bit disappointing, since there is no tidy resolution. However, that ambiguity is exactly what makes the novel powerful. As the story progresses, we can’t help but sympathize with this boy who has been charged with the crime. In fact, when we actually hear from Bob, he comes across as an upstanding young man and a sympathetic character. But Thompson was fascinated by the sociopaths and their ability to make people believe that they are something other than what they really are. For those of us who read The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, we can’t help but wonder if Bob is, in fact, pulling the wool over our eyes.

In the end, the town and tabloids forget about Josie Eddleman, and Bob Talbert’s guilt or innocence becomes largely irrelevant. Ultimately, all that we are left with is a smörgåsbord of greed and betrayal, creating a Thompsonian view of a universe drenched with moral nihilism.

READ MORE:The Book You Have to Read: The Grifters, by Jim Thompson,” by Chris Knopf (The Rap Sheet).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i read The Getaway and one other but I didn't love them! The end of The Getaway was freaky!
Maybe The Grifters and Criminals is better?