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December 17, 2017

Of Grifters, Killers & Cops

On this day in 1977, the pulp-noir writer Jim Thompson died. Thompson was one of the most durable and prolific of the mid-century pulp writers, a specialist in dark motives, twisted deeds and crime novels which, says biographer Robert Polito, "lanced a boil on the American Dream." Although success came late and left early, Thompson kept at it and kept hopeful: "Just you wait," he told his wife shortly before his death, cautioning her to hang on to his copyrights, "I'll become famous after I'm dead about ten years." Thirteen years later, The Grifters received four Academy Award nominations, and then a handful of other books were turned into films, and today nearly all of Thompson's books are back in print.

Judging by Polito's biography, the film that needs making is the one about Thompson's life. As if noir-destined, he liked to say that he was born in a jail, but he was actually born in an apartment above the Caddo County jail. His father was a sheriff in the Oklahoma Territory, until he was on the run from the law. Then he was an oil tycoon, and a politician, and vaguely-employed in distant places, from which he would come home either empty-handed or with suitcases of money. Thompson grew up quickly and alone -- 6'4" by the age of fifteen, often new in town and a stranger to his schoolmates, always withdrawn to a book or a movie or a job. As a bellboy at Fort Worth's Hotel Texas (where President Kennedy spent his last night), Thompson was bootlegger, drug peddler, grifter, pimp, male escort, and more interested in his $300/week in tips than his high school classes. This went on for two years until, at seventeen and down to 100 pounds, he collapsed into an exhausted, tubercular, alcoholic, twenty-seven-hour sleep.

Thompson came away from the hospital and the bellboy job with lifelong addictions -- whiskey, two-packs-a-day, work-'til-you-drop - and lots of material for A Swell-Looking Babe, originally titled "What the Bellboy Saw." Many of Thompson's other novels, says Polito, tap his fractured adolescence and "engage the nuclear family principally in the act of detonation" - orphans, outcasts and oedipals "by turns nursing and picking their wounds." The twelve novels he wrote in a two-year burst in his mid-forties are regarded as his noir-est achievement - books that get Thompson labeled "existentialist," and ranked with Hammett and Chandler. But no amount of literary analysis will cover over that the books can get rough and pulpy. The first category in Polito's attempt to classify the Thompson oeuvre is "First Person Psychopathic Novels." The origin of the species, the sheriff-weirdo in The Killer Inside Me, takes this relatively sunny snapshot of himself:
    I've loafed streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other - hell, you've probably seen me if you've ever been out this way - I've stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn't piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I'm laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.
As his killers sometimes struggle and fail to be other sorts of people, so Thompson tried to be a different kind of writer. During the Depression he was very involved with the Oklahoma branch of the Federal Writers' Project, the New Deal initiative that provided work for many authors -- Conrad Aiken, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Louis L'Amour. The FWP work moved Thompson to the Left, where he became friends with Woody Guthrie, and became determined to write a Grapes of Wrath and a Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the publishers weren't interested in what he had to say about good guys and hard workers, and Thompson was soon forced into the pulp industry, where editors wanted more books for their "hairy armpit" series, and paid by the word. Much later, trying to make it now as a screenwriter, Thompson worked with both Stanley Kubrick and Robert Redford. But by then it was too late, his alcoholism and broken health the new, final jail. He was seventy years old and seventy pounds when he died - starved himself to death, says his wife, because he could no longer hold a pen.

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