No Man Is a Prophet in His Own Land
Oklahoman Jim Thompson Emerges from the Shadows
J. MADISON DAVIS
Perhaps the oddest thing about Oklahoma author Jim Thompson—and there were many odd things about his writings and his life—is how often articles about him also mention Jerry Lewis. It isn’t like they have much in common. Thompson’s novels and screenplays are the antithesis of comedy. Lewis was popular; Thompson barely noticed by the public. Nevertheless, their names frequently appear together in print because Americans find it perplexing that the French have held a higher opinion of their work than we have. We don’t seem to know how to react when critics from other nations (especially the French) have more respect for one of our own than we do, particularly for an author so quintessentially American.
Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1906, and when he died in 1977 had published twenty-nine novels and many screenplays. Many of his novels have been made into movies, like The Getaway (Steve McQueen, 1972; Alec Baldwin, 1994) and The Grifters (Anjelica Huston, adapted by Donald Westlake, 1990). Yet a recent trip through the bookstores in Norman, Oklahoma, turned up only one copy of one book by him, the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard reprint of The Killer Inside Me, the novel usually considered his best. The University of Oklahoma library shelves not even that, though a catalog search turns up the DVD copy of Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, The Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou. Thompson, Kubrick, and Calder Willingham are credited with the screenplay (based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb). The Oklahoma State University library has about two dozen of the Vintage Crime paperbacks and a couple of older paperbacks in the special collections. The Tulsa public library has about twenty of his novels, again the Vintage releases from the 1990s, but there are almost as many citations for Jerry Lewis as an author in its database. Raymond Chandler, who only wrote six novels, gets over sixty citations as author. In short, Jim Thompson is hardly a household name in his homeland, even though he is well known and highly respected among crime writers.
A tiny number of grumblers might argue he doesn’t deserve to be a household name, dismissing him as a pulp writer, but thanks to the French critics who recognized the underlying power of a certain kind of film and novel and dubbed it noir, as well as the breakdown of artistic hierarchies among critics in general, pulp fiction is no longer immediately dismissible. In his lifetime Thompson was widely printed in translation, and not just in France. From 1950 to 1966, Gallimard published nine of his novels, honoring Pop. 1280 (1964) by choosing it to be the thousandth volume in the Série Noire books. In 1979, two years after his death, the French magazine Polar devoted an entire issue to Thompson and his work.1 Two acclaimed French movies were based on his work. Série noire (1979), directed by Alain Corneau and starring Marie Trintignant, was adapted from Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1954). Coup de Torchon, directed in 1981 by Bernard Tavernier, reset Pop. 1280 to colonial Africa in 1938, with Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert in the leading roles. It not only received five César awards (best actor, actress, director, editing, and film), it earned an Oscar nomination as best foreign-language film.
Compared to many of the other artists of noir, Thompson is one of the darkest. James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler are optimists compared to Thompson. Chandler tells us in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that in all art there must be a quality of redemption. Yet unless he means the general uplift or catharsis that most high-quality stories give us, there is very little redemption in Thompson.
Consider the narrator of The Killer Inside Me (1952). Stanley Kubrick described the book as having “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.”2 Few writers can dwell in the mind of a psychopath without resorting to hyperbole. Without the hyperbole, few writers can pull it off without repelling the reader. There’s no attempt in Killer to make the main character somehow sympathetic. Thompson’s Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in Texas, kills on the thinnest of premises and justifies little. There are hints of psychosexual abnormalities in his upbringing, but they are not implied to be the full explanation for Ford’s behavior. He’s clever and he’s evil, and he moves around town playing some kind of Barney Fife, mouthing cliché after cliché, leaving people with the impression that he is too boring and stupid to arrange the sadistic killings he does. The horror of the narrator is emphasized powerfully by Ford’s matter-of-fact tone, and his cold reasoning why this person or that must die at his hands. Consider this icy line just after Ford beats a woman to death: “I wiped my gloves on her body; it was her blood and it belonged there.”3
Killer is such an original and distinctive novel that it is surprising to discover, in Robert Polito’s excellent biography of Thompson, Savage Art, that the novel derived from a publisher’s folder of synopses of sensational plots they were planning to hire out. It originally was set in New York City with the main character being a cop who gets involved with a prostitute and ends up killing her.4 In general, noir uses urban settings, but Thompson created a noir vision of an oil-boom town in west Texas and a portrait of sadism that remains profoundly disturbing, even in our blood-soaked times of serial killer’s manifestoes. How the mind of a creative genius (in this case known to be a gentle man by his family and friends) transforms his or her sources into art is a question we may never be able to answer. Two and two become eight, or sixteen, or even twenty-two, and not even the writer has a clear idea how.
Thompson did know the hard life. His father was the sheriff of Caddo County, Oklahoma, and had a promising political career until some irregularities turned up in his accounts. Although Thompson got an incomplete education at the University of Nebraska, he became one of those young men who scrambled for a living during the Depression, working the oil fields. He became an alcoholic with bleeding ulcers that led to his having part of his stomach removed. He began writing fairly early, doing sketches based on his oil field days and making money writing true crime stories. He tried his hand at a couple of literary novels, which had good reviews, but didn’t sell. Eventually he became involved with the Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration, writing the guide to Oklahoma. He also became involved with the Communist Party, joining in 1935 after having read Marx in the oil fields and organizing writers’ unions. His political activities led to his being attacked inthe Daily Oklahoman and, of course, would lead to his being suspected in the McCarthy era. He would not write crime fiction until he was in his forties and desperate. He managed to be a reporter and then wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), a remarkable film about the sickness of war and the politics that motivate it.
Despite the respect of other writers, he made little headway in becoming a famous author. While on the Writers’ Project, he became friends with the Oklahoma writer who would outsell all the rest of them, Louis L’Amour. L’Amour showed up at Thompson’s house for dinner regularly during the Depression. When Thompson was viciously attacked in Oklahoma City for some of his leftist writings, L’Amour defended him. But the friendship didn’t last. L’Amour, Thompson thought, was too sentimental. L’Amour made up stories about himself, all crowd pleasers, but Thompson often caught him in major lies. In the end, writers have no choice but to write what they write. Thompson couldn’t write what L’Amour wrote, considering it to be phony. Gordon Friesen, an Oklahoma City friend of Thompson’s, once said, “I’ve sometimes thought that Jim wrote what he did in answer to L’Amour’s sentimental gook. Jim Thompson’s was the real story—How the West Was Really Won.”5
There was a price to pay for his art. Once, Thompson told his wife, “Just you wait, I’ll become famous after I’m dead about ten years.”6 The prediction was right on target.
University of Oklahoma
1 Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (New York: Knopf, 1995), 445. There are two biographies of Thompson. Polito’s won both the National Book Critics Circle award and an Edgar Allan Poe award. There is also Michael McCauley’s Jim Thompson: Sleep with the Devil (New York: Mysterious Press, 1991).
2 Quoted on the cover of The Killer Inside Me (1952; reprint, New York: Vintage Crime, 1991).
3 Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, 50.
4 Polito, Savage Art, 342.
5 Quoted in Polito, Savage Art, 222.
6 Quoted in Polito, Savage Art, 508.
J. Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels and nonfiction books, most recently The Van Gogh Conspiracy (2005). He serves as regional vice president of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers and teaches novel and film-script writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
“From the November-December 2007 issue of World Literature Today (81:5), pages 39-40. Copyright © 2007 World Literature Today.”