By Jay Mullinix
“Yes, there is a hell, my boy, and you do not have to dig for it.”
—Jim Thompson (Savage Night)
Call it a bibliophile’s guilty pleasure, but I love the mass-market paperback originals which appeared in the years following World War II. Published by such houses as Dell, Lion, Ace, Popular Library, and – most famously – Gold Medal, this “pulp fiction” earned its name from the cheap, low quality paper on which it was printed. These novels were small enough to slide into a back pocket, cheap (around 25¢), short (about 50,000 words), plotted at a tommy-gun pace, and sprinkled with a generous dashing of violence and sex. Fronted by lurid cover art featuring rough, gun-wielding men and provocative, garment-needy women, they filled turnstile racks at drugstores, newsstands, bus depots, truck stops, and train stations across the country up through the mid-1960s.
Sure, many of the pulp authors were just working hacks. But there were also writers of genuine talent (John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams – not the earlier British author with the Oxford Inklings – David Goodis, Peter Rabe, and Malcolm Braly are just a few worth your time) who used the pulp form to probe serious questions of moral complexity and delve into psychological studies of human behavior – and who did so with prose as well-formed as anything to be found in the more respectable world of literary fiction.
Of all the paperback original authors, none have achieved the cult following combined with critical respect that have accrued to Jim Thompson. The man labeled by literary critic Geoffrey O’Brien as “a dime-store Dostoevsky” was born in 1906 in rural Oklahoma. Thompson escaped a violent and abusive home as a teenager and spent two decades as a drifter, working as a hotel bellboy, railroad hand, oilfield hand, factory worker, bill collector, burlesque actor, nightclub bouncer, newspaper reporter, film projectionist, and professional gambler. A melancholic and rueful man, he also became a heavy drinker and battled alcoholism his entire adult life.
Thompson eventually found his vocational footing as a writer, publishing first in the pulp magazines and then 25 novels between 1949–1973. His work is uneven, but in his best books (a short list being The Grifters, The Getaway, Savage Night, The Killer Inside Me, and Pop. 1280) he produced some of the finest crime fiction ever written. No other writer of his time so doggedly sought to understand human evil, or so ably portrayed the human capacity for self-deception and self-destruction. For Thompson, human existence unspools as an endless Greek tragedy, where the good guys never win and people are perpetually undone by their own relentless compulsion to selfishness.
Christians may be tempted to dismiss Thompson’s books because of their violence and sex. I would urge them to reconsider. Like Flannery O’Connor, Thompson used the sensational as a sort of shock treatment to jolt readers awake to their own moral torpor and hypocrisy. As such, his stories are shot through with themes that are fundamentally spiritual and existential.
The Grifters presents the story of Roy Dillon, a 20-something con-man (or “grifter”) plying his various ruses in 1950s Los Angeles. Central to the narrative is Roy’s entanglement in a triangle involving his older mistress Moira and his mother Lilly, both of whom are deft players of the grift game themselves. Roy, Moira, and Lilly revolve about each other in a continual dance of manipulation and self-interest. Theologically viewed, their interaction is a fascinating sort of anti-Trinity, each person’s self-seeking perpetually birthing more self-justified and manipulative behavior in the others. Thompson’s brutal ending is as noir as they come, but the story is also as keen an observation of the rippling and reciprocal effects of sin (both on oneself and others) as can be found.
In The Getaway Thompson plays the Virgil, guiding us on a Dante-like descent into the hell two protagonists create for themselves. The story concerns a bank heist by Doc and his wife Carol and their frantic flight toward Mexico and the kingdom of El Rey – a rumored city where criminals can find haven. Thompson seems to revel in the irony that Doc and Carol’s pursuit of freedom repeatedly thrusts them into circumstances of virtual and hellish imprisonment, at one point hiding out for days below ground beneath a manure pile. (The careful reader will note the significance of the subterranean nature of multiple such circumstances) The more desperately the two try to maintain a grip on their situation, the faster it spirals out of control. The book is one of the most harrowing illustrations to be found of Christ’s warning that “he who seeks to save his own life will lose it.”
In the end, the couple’s arrival at the kingdom of El Rey proves not be the liberation they envisioned but their final hell. Closing the book after my first reading I thought of the words of C.S. Lewis’ Aslan: “All get what they want. They do not always like it.” In an age which often equates human flourishing with the indulgence and affirmation of individual desire, The Getaway is a bracing tonic.
The Killer Inside Me, probably Thompson’s most famous book, is narrated from the perspective of Lou Ford, a small-town Texas deputy and everyman. Lou is well-read, intelligent but self-deprecating, polite, willing to help a neighbor, diligent in his work, and a generally affable guy. He also happens to be a psychopathic killer. In fact, it is Lou’s very affability that renders him so frightening. We like Lou and when he says that he likes other people, or wants to help them, we believe him; he never appears to be feigning. The power of Thompson’s stories is in part due to this special knack for causing us to identify with and care about protagonists who are by turns both genuinely likeable and disturbingly psychopathic. We find ourselves laughing with them, feeling for them, moved by their moments of kindness or vulnerability, enjoying their company. And then we watch them commit acts of such brutality it makes us feel as though we’ve had a wire brush scraped across our eyes.
Nowhere does Thompson do this more effectively than in his masterpiece Pop. 1280, which of all his books grapples with religious themes most explicitly. The setting is the small Southern town of Pottsville (“Pop. 1280” the sign announces by the road into town), where lip service to old-fashioned, neighborly, law-and-order, church-going values masks a community roiling with racism, lust, corruption, and hypocrisy.
The narrator, Nick Corey, is at first glance a buffoonish county sheriff whose inner musings, tawdry humor, and colloquial observations are often uproariously funny. Yet Nick moves through the story cutting a grisly swathe of violence. He functions as a sort of avenging angel of death unleashing judgment on a community where there are no innocents. As he sees it, his job is “to coax ‘em into revealin’ theirselves an’ then kick the crap out of ‘em.” Of course Nick is just as corrupt and self-serving as anyone else in Pottsville. “What I loved was myself,” he admits, “and I was willing to do anything I god-dang had to, to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.”
The novel’s title is a nod towards the corruption of the entire town – and perhaps more than that. Pottsville can be read as a microcosm of the whole of humanity, a searing confirmation of the psalmist’s indictment that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Ps. 14:3). In both Nick and the townsfolk, Thompson brilliantly manifests the propensity we have as fallen beings to condemn our neighbors while excusing ourselves. “Practically every fella that breaks the law has a danged good reason, to his own way of thinking,” says Nick, “which makes every case exceptional, not just one or two.”
We prefer to think that evil is something “bad people” do, and that these bad people are easily recognizable. We see a mug shot on the news and say “Oh, he looks like a child molester, like a mass shooter, like a serial killer, like a bad person. Or as often as not today we think of evil as that perpetrated only by our political opposites. We describe such people as “inhuman” or “deplorable”, descriptors that gives us the relief of distance. The guise evil wears is, of course, always that of someone else.
Thompson knew this way of thinking is a lie. He knew that evil isn’t something that “bad people” do; it’s something all of us are capable of. The prosaic nature of the people who commit evil or who abet it by cowed acceptance charges his stories with an unsettling potency.
Thompson’s clear perception of human brokenness, however, can only take us so far. Self-understanding, good as such a thing is, is not redemptive unless joined with repentance and faith in Christ. Thompson ably depicted humanity’s need for salvation and our inability of ourselves to realize it, but perceiving the possibility and source of that salvation was sadly something that seems to have escaped his vision.
Even so, his books are powerful tales that transcend their low-brow appearance. Pascal wrote that diversions (from the Latin divertere) are things we take up to turn away from ourselves. How ironic that Thompson’s pulp fiction – the supreme diversionary genre of literature – should be a place where we are given so clear a mirror in which to see ourselves.
Jay Mullinix lives with his wife and three children in Wichita, Kansas, where they attend St. George Orthodox Cathedral. He works in the insurance industry as a property claims adjuster.
A different version of this essay also appeared on Mockingbird.