December 17, 2017
Of Grifters, Killers & CopsOn 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grew up quickly and alone -- 6'4" by the age of fifteen, often new in town and a stranger to his schoolmates, always withdrawn to a book or a movie or a job.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:
Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble