In a series of paperback noir thrillers populated by the marginal and alienated inhabitants of Cold War America’s barren wastelands, Jim Thompson refuted the contemporary optimism of the “affluent society.” In contrast to the dominant ideology, Thompson argued that capitalism deformed both the environment and human nature, and he specialized in portraying the psychic ravages inflicted on the victims of American society, with his characters often keeping hidden their psychopathic natures, nursing private grudges that threaten to burst forth in a frenzy of homicidal rage. Similarly, his savage parodies of the ethic of “personality” subverted the ideal character type of American business culture. And, at a time when mainstream culture viewed the family as a potential haven for domestic peace in its suburban enclave and a bulwark against communism, he depicted the family as the center of the violence and chaos endemic to American life.
The roots of Thompson’s dark vision lay in the Popular Front of the Depression and World War II eras. In his 1997 study The Cultural Front, Michael Denning describes the flowering of “a left culture in the age of the CIO” emerging out of the confluence of the wave of labor organizing among Depression-era industrial workers with the growth of mass culture industries and various state cultural organizations, like the Works Progress Administration. Anchored in the Popular Front — a broad-based political/cultural movement with institutional bases in the Communist Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the left wing of the Democratic Party — this cultural front transcended these organizations, leaving an indelible mark on American culture for decades after its emergence. As Denning says, several thirties proletarian writers followed the lead of fellow traveler Dashiell Hammett and began producing detective and mystery fiction, either in novels or for Hollywood, seeing it as the logical outgrowth of the naturalism of the “ghetto pastorals.”
The son of a local politician, lawyer, and oil man who gained and lost several fortunes, Thompson was born in 1906 in Oklahoma Territory, and grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. Forced to drop out of the University of Nebraska during the Great Depression, Thompson worked as a manual laborer on west Texas oil pipelines while freelancing for true detective magazines until he landed a job on the WPA’s Oklahoma Writers Project in 1936. As outlined by his biographer Robert Polito, Thompson’s tenure with the WPA was marked by his radical politics, as he joined the Communist Party and served as one of the organizers of the Oklahoma John Reed Club. Thompson oversaw the writing of the strongly pro-union Labor History of Oklahoma, befriended fellow Okie radical Woody Guthrie, gave a talk at the Southwest Writers’ Congress entitled “The Economic Plight of the Writer,” and wrote a letter to the national director of the WPA protesting the firing of five members of the St. Louis project for organizing a union — “I wish to protest against the recent outrage in St. Louis which for sheer tyranny and the usurpation of human rights has not been equaled since the Homestead Strike.” As Polito says, “Nearly everything good that happened to Jim Thompson as a writer — starting in 1936, and continuing deep into the next decade — came about as a result of his involvement with the radical left.”
Thompson moved to San Diego in 1940 and eventually found work in a wartime aircraft plant. Working nights at the factory, he wrote his first published novel, Now and On Earth (1942), a largely autobiographical story of a worker in an aircraft plant struggling to support his extended family and write a novel. A proletarian novel in its emphasis on the oppressive nature of capitalism and the ways poverty breeds family dysfunction, Now and On Earth differs from standard proletarian literature in that the main character does not develop class consciousness and ends up simply pondering, “Were you ever happy? Did you ever have any peace? And I had to answer, Why no, for Christ’s sake; you’ve always been in hell. You’ve just slipped deeper.” A modest critical success, Now and On Earth did not earn enough to allow Thompson to quit his job at the factory. With his next novel, Heed the Thunder (1946), Thompson probed the dark underside of small-town life in early-twentieth century Nebraska, emphasizing the ways capitalism had despoiled the natural beauty and fertility of the land. With the critical and financial failure of his second book, Thompson turned to writing crime novels and in the early fifties began churning out paperbackromans noirs — thirteen between 1952 and 1955. In the late fifties Thompson would begin writing occasional screenplays for film — including co-writing Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957) — and television, but most of his work would be cheap paperbacks, none of which would still be in print at the time of his death in 1977.
Sold from drugstore bookracks for twenty-five cents and typically featuring lurid cover art, paperbacks kept alive a proletarian vision in an increasingly middle-class, suburban post-World War II American culture. As Geoffrey O’Brien has written, “The hardboiled writers and the paperbacks seemed made for each other. For one thing, embedded in the novels . . . was a vein of tough and sordid realism that lent itself admirably to both illustration and mass exploitation. Furthermore, the quality the novelists aimed for in their writing was manifested in the very form of a paperback book, a book that is compact and casual, a book that can be read and tossed away, that can be carried anywhere.” And while the politics of the paperbacks ran the gamut from the right-wing sadism of Mickey Spillane to such erstwhile proletarian writers as Thompson or Chester Himes, their worldview fundamentally undermined the Cold War consensus. O’Brien continues, “The paperbacks . . . tell of a dark world below the placid surface, a world whose inhabitants tend to be grasping, dissatisfied, emotionally twisted creatures. Here, all is not well; from the looks of it, all could not be much worse. . . . A nation gets the epic it deserves, and not necessarily the one it wants.”
Thompson frequently set his stories in the context of Cold War politics. In A Swell-Looking Babe (1954), the protagonist’s father is a victim of anti-red blacklisting, having lost his job as a school principal for signing a petition to allow the communist-front Free Speech Committee to hold a meeting in the school auditorium. In Recoil (1953), a right-wing organization, the National Phalanx, and its demagogic leader have created a major national issue by attacking school textbooks for their subversive tendencies, while the political machine that controls the state government is using the Phalanx and the textbook issue to divert attention from its corrupt relationship with the oil industry. In his novella, “This World, Then the Fireworks” — written in the mid-fifties, though not published until 1988 — the psychopathic first-person narrator commits a murder designed to look like an accident, but is dissatisfied with the neatness of the killing, thinking, “It was too simple . . . and there is already far too much of such studied and stupid simplicity in life. Drop-a-bomb-on-Moscow, the poor-are-terribly-happy thinking. Men are forced to live with this nonsense, this simplicity, and they should have something better in death.”
Thompson built on the idea of the grotesque characteristic to such modernist authors as Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Nathanael West. Like fellow noir author Chester Himes, he often gives characters physical deformities as outward evidence of their twisted psyches. But Thompson’s most terrifying grotesques are those whose external appearance completely belies their twisted nature. The most impressively conceived of these characters is Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952). A deputy in a small Texas town, Ford comes across to other townspeople as a boring simpleton prone to talking in the most banal clichés. In fact, Ford is brilliant; he is able to read several languages and his hobbies include working advanced calculus problems. He also is a psychopathic killer. As he explains to someone just before killing him, “We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. . . . Yeah . . . , it’s a screwed up, bitched up world, and I’m afraid it’s going to stay that way. And I’ll tell you why. Because no one, almost no one sees anything wrong with it. They can’t see that things are screwed up, so they’re not worried about it.” Similarly, inPop. 1280 (1964), Nick Corey, the sheriff in a small southern town — as well as being a cold-blooded murderer — masks an inner genius beneath a dullard’s persona. Realizing the sheriff’s office is a sinecure in which people do not expect him to do anything, Corey enforces the law only against the poor and minorities, groups with no social power.
Thompson’s pantheon of manipulative characters frequently extends into savage parodies of what had become the dominant character type under twentieth-century consumer capitalism. As historian Warren Susman has argued, in nineteenth-century producer-capitalist economy, most cultural sources had stressed the necessity of developing a good character, with emphasis on the internal cultivation of a strong sense of morality. But in the twentieth century, this ethic was gradually supplanted by an emphasis on personality, which stressed the need to fit in and get along. According to Susman, “The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer. Every American was to become a performing self.” But the underside of the cult of personality was manipulation. One worked to please others to get them to do one’s bidding. This theme — the fear of the “confidence man” — had been common in American culture at least since the mid-nineteenth century, but it reached its psychopathic apogee in Thompson’s fiction.
In Thompson’s universe, most characters are performers, wearing masks that allow them to fit in while covering their darker, manipulative sides. In The Nothing Man (1953), Clinton Brown solidifies his position at the newspaper where he works with his exaggerated obsequiousness toward the publisher, safe in his knowledge that the publisher will never recognize the compliments as satire. “However good you said he was, it wasn’t ever quite so good as hethought he was.” In The Getaway (1958), Doc McCoy is, in the words of one character, a “prince of men.” But this hail-fellow-well-met persona masks the most ruthless killer in Thompson’s fiction. In a bit of biographical information it is revealed that Doc inherited his personality from his father, a sheriff in a southern state. An incompetent lawman, Doc’s father had been a success because he was the “best-liked man in the county.” Thus Doc had been “born popular; into a world where he was instantly liked and constantly reassured of his welcome.” As a young man, Doc had moved to New York and found a job. But at work he was a disruptive influence because coworkers tended to gather around him, and supervisors often favored him, hurting workplace morale. Though such skills would have made him an ideal upper-level manager, he was too young for such a position. Thus he turned to a life of crime, where he was his own boss and his personality skills would be an unambiguous boon.
Roy Dillon in The Grifters (1963) is not a ruthless killer like Doc McCoy, but a small-time con man. But he too has developed a winning personality, allowing him to successfully manipulate others—“People were his business, knowing them was.” Dillon’s cover job is as a salesman, and he realizes that the skills needed for selling and conning are essentially the same—“he had made personality a profession, created a career out of selling himself”—though eventually he realizes the fundamental insecurity of building his career on this ethic of personality—“What a way to live, he thought resentfully. Always watching every word he said, carefully scrutinizing every word that was said to him. And never making a move that wasn’t studiously examined in advance. Figuratively, he walked through life on a high wire, and he could turn his mind from it only at his own peril.”
At every level, Thompson’s worldview subverted the official optimism of America’s postwar affluent society. The stories are set far from middle-class suburbia, taking place instead in barren west Texas or Oklahoma or, as in The Kill-Off(1957), in a small, declining vacation spot, or, as in The Grifters, a spiritually barren southern California. These worlds are populated with grifters, prostitutes, and cold-blooded killers, losers even at crime. Similarly the family — which in the dominant cultural view served as a stabilizing force with its well-defined social roles and its traditional values — represents for Thompson, more often than not, the source of his protagonists’ ravaged psyches. Such characters as The Killer Inside Me’s Lou Ford or A Swell-Looking Babe’s Dusty Rhodes are products of generational, Freudian crises underlying their psychopathy.
Thompson posited this nightmarish vision beneath the official worldview of a suburbanizing America, a people of plenty defending freedom and democracy against the forces of totalitarianism. While mainstream America worked hard to repress this darker underside, Thompson eviscerated the dominant discourse, shredding even basic literary conventions; as O’Brien comments, “Thompson broke most of the rules of crime fiction, or indeed any kind of genre fiction.” His books often culminate with descents into a hellish surrealism, the unraveling of realism and narrative reflecting the unraveling of the cold war consensus. The writing might grow increasingly frenetic, as in Savage Night (1953), in which the chapters grow shorter (seven in six pages) as the narrator is gradually dismembered by his lover, eventually escaping into the basement, wherein, he says, “And he was there, of course. Death was there.” And then the final chapter reads, in its entirety, “And he smelled good.” Or the narrative might fracture into two and offer alternative endings as in the equally bleak resolutions in A Hell of a Woman (1954). Or, as in The Getaway, the criminal-protagonists may escape to the mythical land of El Rey where they will live the good life until they run out of money at which point, they discover, they will become food for the other residents of El Rey. “Quite fitting, eh, senor?” a policeman says to Doc. “And such an easy transition. One need only live literally as he has always done figuratively.”
Throughout his career, Thompson languished among the literary proletariat, working in the pulp market producing disposable works that quickly melted into the air of pop culture ephemera. Occasionally he seemed on the verge of being rescued from oblivion, as when Sam Peckinpah made a 1972 film based on (a very bowdlerized version of) Thompson’s The Getaway. His critical reputation began to improve shortly after his death, with the French appreciating his genius long before American audiences. In 1979, Alan Corneau directed Serie noire based on Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, while Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon (1982) adapted Pop. 1280 with the setting changed to colonial French Africa. American appreciation followed in the eighties and nineties with Vintage books reprinting most of Thompson’s work and Hollywood making major film productions of The Grifters (1990), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), The Getaway (1994; both this and Peckinpah’s earlier adaptation completely leave out the entire final scene set in the kingdom of El Rey), and, more recently, The Killer Inside Me (2010).
While Hollywood’s adaptations capture the violence and brutality of Thompson’s worldview, they elide most of Thompson’s politics. Thompson may agree with D.H. Lawrence’s assessment that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” but he firmly roots this character in the economic system that produces it. In South of Heaven (1967), the narrator hides out by the Pecos River in west Texas where, in the cool of the evening, he notices a wide variety of animals coming to a pool in the river to drink and marvels, “This was the end of the day, and everyone had fought and fed enough, and now was the time of truce. . . . I watched and kind of wondered if there were any natural enemies, or whether there was even any enemy anywhere but hunger.”
- Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso: 1997).
- D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Penguin: 1923).
- Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir (Da Capo, 1997).
- Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (Vintage: 1995).
- Jim Thompson, The Getaway (Vintage: 1990, originally published 1958).
- Jim Thompson, The Grifters (Vintage: 1990, originally published 1963).
- Jim Thompson, Heed the Thunder (Vintage: 1994, originally published 1946).
- Jim Thompson, A Hell of a Woman (Vintage: 1990, originally published 1954).
- Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (Vintage: 1991, originally published 1952).
- Jim Thompson, The Kill-Off (Vintage: 1999, originally published 1957).
- Jim Thompson, Now and On Earth (Vintage: 1994, originally published 1942).
- Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280 (Vintage: 1990, originally published 1964).
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night (Vintage: 1991, originally published 1953).
- Jim Thompson, “This World, Then the Fireworks,” in Fireworks: The Lost Writings (Mysterious Press, 1988).
This is an adapted excerpt from David Cochran's America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era, published by Smithsonian Press.
David Cochran teaches history at John A. Logan Community College in Carterville, Illinois.