Sunday, February 15, 2009

"One cross is bad enough, but I hadn't ought to carry a whole god-dang lumberyard around with me!"

When I picked up Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 (1964) in an attempt to begin fulfilling one of my reading resolutions for 2009, I'll admit I didn't expect it to open anything like this:
Well, sir, I should have been sitting pretty, just as pretty as a man could sit. Here I was, the high sheriff of Potts County, and I was drawing almost two thousand dollars a year--not to mention what I could pick up on the side. On top of that, I had free living quarters on the second floor of the courthouse, just as nice a place as a man could ask for; and it even had a bathroom so that I didn't have to bathe in a washtub or tramp outside to a privy, like most folks in town did. I guess you could say that Kingdom Come was really here as far as I was concerned. I had it made, and it looked like I could go on having it made--being high sheriff of Potts County--as long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'.
That voice--jokey, casual, yarn-spinning--is about as far as you can get from the hard-boiled bleakness I'd expected. Cornpone folksiness? Really?

Well, yes, as it turns out--but also, and more importantly, no. Sheriff Corey's narrative voice, with its mix of homespun wisdom and nonsense, never wavers, taking control of the book from the first page and holding the reader rapt (and often laughing) throughout. But at the same time, Thompson slowly, and with remarkable control, lets us see that there's far more to the sheriff than meets the ear. Though Corey agrees early and often with everyone's assessment that he's stupid and simple--
I couldn't really argue about her saying I was stupid and spineless--who wants a smart sheriff--and I figure it's a lot nicer to turn your back on trouble than it is to look at it.
--over the course of the novel we realize how dextrous he is at using that impression to hide what lies beneath it: a scheming mind with a preternatural understanding of human nature and an uncanny ability to find its lowest common denominator. He's like an amoral Davy Crockett or a frontier Odysseus, distracting everyone with a wink and a whirl of words while he manipulates people into unwittingly participating in his dirty work.

Thompson manages the dual register of Corey's narration remarkably well, introducing more and more dissonant notes over the course of the novel, so that by the time we've realized the full extent of his cunning, we've nearly been suckered ourselves. Idiocy masks hypocrisy, laziness masks self-dealing, innocence masks violence, and throughout, the sheriff barrages everyone with folk wisdom--
I mean, well, which is worse, George, the fella that craps on a doorknob or the one that rings the doorbell?
--and faux ignorance--
I ain't saying you're wrong but I ain't saying you're right, either. Anyways, even if I am stupid, you can't hardly fault me for it. They's lots of stupid people in the world.
The result is a black comedy with the body count of a Renaissance tragedy, one which at the same time skewers the hypocrisies and structural brutalities of the rural south. And on top of all that, we get a dictionary's worth of ridiculous countrified slang; lines of dialogue like the following would almost make the novel worth reading all on their own:
"What's the matter," Rose said. "You screw Myra all the time, and don't tell me you don't, you stupidlooking jackass! You've tossed it to her so often you've thrown your ass out of line with your eyeballs!"

I've been told that my instincts were correct, that Pop. 1280 is atypical of Thompson. But assuming his other novels demonstrate anything like this level of skill and control in prose and voice, I can see why Donald Westlake was a fan, and I have no doubt that he'll be joining my list of favorites.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a big Thompson fan, but the Messianic turn that Corey's character takes at the end really soured me on this book. You should check out The Getaway, The Nothing Man and The Kill-Off instead.