Archive for January, 2010

Making Noxious Behavior Engrossing

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Perhaps HRF Keating put it best when he said, “The great merit of the novels of Jim Thompson is that they are completely without good taste.” I would echo those sentiments. There is very little to look up to in a Thompson novel or story. But there’s a hell of a lot to like. Not the least of which is the man’s way with words. On occasion, he equaled Raymond’s Chandler’s ability to stop you cold with a descriptive phrase. Such as Thompson’s “She had on a mucklededung-colored coat–the way it was screaming Sears-Roebuck they should have paid her to wear it.” But he had no desire to equal Chandler in finely nuanced sophistication. He was more than happy to serve up all the sad squalor of human degradation that’s part and parcel of a number of America’s social levels. In fact, I believe he felt most at home when rubbing elbows (or throwing them) with denizens of blighted neighborhoods, sordid cities and nihilistic hamlets.

Jim Thompson wrote like his life depended on it. Because it often did. During his lifetime he published a lot, but was paid little for it. And he often squandered much of what he made on extended benders. Born in the Anadarko, Oklahoma jailhouse and raised in small towns throughout Oklahoma, Texas and the South, Thompson got to know the working people of the world up close and personal. You learn a lot about people being a bellhop in shady hotels. And you learn a lot about labor and hard-earned wages serving time as an oil field roughneck and roustabout. Of course, you also learn about blowing off steam and the consequences of over indulgence in sex, alcohol and mayhem. Not always in that order. Thompson had a lifelong battle with alcoholism. It frequently cost him jobs, familial peace and more. But unlike many, he managed to stave off its ultimate effect until the age of 71. His, for his time, was a relatively long life, that he probably wished was shorter.

Between the late 1940’s and the early 1970’s, Jim Thompson wrote nearly 30 novels. Yes, for the math majors among you, that’s about one novel a year. But it was during a time when there were no graphic novels, no video games, no personal computers, very little football on TV, and thankfully, no reality TV at all. So people, the kind of people who didn’t go in much for the symphony or opera or even the legitimate theatre, turned to “paperbacks” for a lot of their entertainment. And Thompson was more than happy to serve up all the “reality fiction” any reader could stomach. Of course, every now and then he would dose it with a lethal injection of horror, fantasy and the supernatural. Just enough to keep the reader on his toes. You’d be going along, thinking you were reading an interestingly written, but rather ordinary thriller, when all of a sudden you’d come upon a big heaping bowl of bizarre. Surrealism wove its way in and out of Thompson novels like an uninvited relative.

Take for instance Savage Night. A novel that for seven-eights of its length appears to be a vivid story of a syndicate hit man embroiled in a troubled assignment. It has the usual cast of Thompson characters: the hero, who looks like a punk kid, but who, in reality, is really a tuberculoid adult living on borrowed time; a slutty landlady with more curves that Lombard Street in San Francisco; her alcoholic husband who has squealed on the mob and is in constant fear of losing what is left of his life; an aging baker who may or may not be on the bad guy’s payroll; and Ruthie, a freakishly deformed college girl who could wind up being the most dangerous one of all. The story unfolds in a rather straightforward way until it gets near the eventual climax where it could be said the book literally devours itself. Readers just may find that a writer named Stephen King, owes a bit of his inspiration and success to Jim Thompson.

A number of movies were made from Jim Thompson original scripts or were based on his novels. The Getaway was made twice. With Steve McQueen in the 70’s and Alec Baldwin in the 90’s. The Killer Inside Me (Thompson’s most successful book) was made twice. With Stacy Keach in the 70’s and this year, 2010, a version with Casey Affleck in the lead role. The Grifters (which garnered four Oscar nominations) was based on a Thompson novel. As was After Dark My Sweet. And there were lots more. Including two scripts for the famous director Stanley Kubrick. But virtually all of the acclaim for Jim Thompson’s work came after his death. Not unlike many characters in his novels, he may have gotten the last laugh, but he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

A wonderful biography of Thompson was written in 1995 by Robert Polito and it garnered both the National Book Critics Award and the Edgar Award for best critical biography. Polito appropriately titled it Savage Art. For those who love true stories about black coffee, unfiltered cigarettes and the guys who wrote stories about them, it’s well worth reading.

Jim Thompson’s last years were spent in a small apartment in Hollywood. He used to dine frequently at the famous Musso & Frank Grill. When he became so sick he couldn’t write anymore, he decided he need not eat anymore either. Thompson literally starved himself to death. In addition to his formidable body of work, (intense and gritty as anything you’re ever likely to read), The Fiction Fortune Hunter believes he should also be remembered for a rather remarkable quote. Jim Thompson said, “There are 32 ways to write a story and I’ve used every one of them. But there is only one plot…things are not what they seem.”

Mythic Prose By A Modern Melville

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

This post is inspired by a recent trip to the movies. I saw an excellent film. Faithful, in almost every way, to the novel it was based on. Intense. Harrowing. Profound. Shattering. Yet hopeful. The movie I saw was The Road. And for all it’s attributes, its good intentions, its loyalty to its source, etc., it couldn’t compete with its printed forefather. The visceral power that grips you on every page of that book is an experience every reader should have. I read it in two sittings on an airplane. One, going to my destination. The other, returning from it. On the second, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Hopefully my seat-mate wasn’t overly embarrassed. I was too locked-in to the final pages to notice, or for that matter, to care.

Rather than going into the plot, what little there is, of Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic story of one man’s attempt to remain human when there seems little to no reason to do so, I’d like to simply add my feeble praise to all those who have waxed much more eloquently than I about it’s author. Reading a Cormac McCarthy novel is always a grand adventure. Some of which can be unimaginably fulfilling while one or two can be stultifying. But whatever adventure you have with McCarthy, you’ll be better off for it. His range as a novelist is particularly impressive. A couple of years ago he had a big hit with what some would consider a garden-variety thriller, No Country For Old Men. And while some assumed McCarthy was simply slumming between “big novels”, the Coen Brothers turned his book into an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Prior to that, a long and memorable list of novels unfolded. There was the west Texas trilogy of times past and present. Written by the way, in the order of: first book (the mid life of his characters), second book (the beginning of their story), third book, (their eventual end). Their titles, in the order in which they were written: All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain. Of the three to date, All The Pretty Horses, has been the biggest hit (and was also turned into a movie), my favorite though is Cities of the Plain. The story of two aging cowboys unable and unwilling to change with the times and subject to the harsh fate that often awaits men of honor.

The Road won McCarthy the Pulitzer Prize, All The Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men made him a household literary name (if that’s remotely possible), but the novel that many consider to be his best, still waits to be discovered by the public at large. Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness In The West, was listed by TIME Magazine, among others, as one of the top three novels in the last half century. At its simplest, It’s an uber-violent tale of bounty hunters taking scalps and creating mayhem along the Southwestern border with Mexico. At its grandest, it’s a tale that rivals Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for capturing time and place and men of mythic proportion.

I would however, be remiss if I did not add one laborious adventure I personally had with one of McCarthy’s novels. Suttree, chronicles a short period of time in one man’s life over a seemingly never ending number of pages in which virtually nothing of consequence actually happens. Life on the river is played out at a pace that makes watching paint dry feel like a thrill ride. It’s been said that it took McCarthy over twenty years to write Suttree. It may take some, just as long to read it. But, be that as it may, you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t become acquainted with the writing of Cormac McCarthy. You may need to keep one of those e-dictionaries nearby, for he’s extremely fond of using a word or two, now and then, that hasn’t actually been seen in print for the last couple of centuries, but you’ll revel in the presence of literature with a capitol L. The Fiction Fortune Hunter has. And hopefully, will continue to do so.

A Stand-up Guy In A Shady Town

Friday, January 1st, 2010

I wanted to start 2010 by writing about one of my favorite authors. An author who took a pulpy category and turned it into a home for both the man on the street and the man in the library. His genius was an ability to fulfill the reader who was only after a quick thrill while simultaneously engaging the reader who appreciates precisely paced prose laced with wile, wit and wisdom. The New Yorker said of him that he “wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered.” Paul Auster said “he invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” Joyce Carol Oates has said of him, “his prose rises to heights of unselfconscious eloquence, and we realize with a jolt of excitement that we are in the presence of not a mere action tale teller, but a stylist, a writer with a vision.” Ross Macdonald may have captured the essence of him when he said, “he wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”

I write (it will be obvious to many of you now) of Raymond Chandler. Recognized by virtually all fictionistas as the ultimate writer of the detective story. But it would be criminal to categorize Chandler as merely a “crime writer.” Even though that’s essentially what he wrote of in classic novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady In The Lake, The Little Sister, The High Window, and more. For while the plots of his novels and stories are hip deep in private eyes, shady characters, deadly molls and dastardly deeds, they also abound with irony, honor, ennui, pathos, and acts of unselfish humanity.

My favorite Chandler book is one that spurs debate among critics and fans alike. The Long Goodbye was written later in Chandler’s career. Published in the early 1950s, it was decades after his triumphs listed in the preceding paragraph. While many view it as his crossover from category fiction (the basic crime novel) to mainstream contemporary literature, there are those who feel it is not quite up to his early work. I, for one, am in the camp of the former rather than the latter. I find it just as engrossing as anything Chandler wrote earlier and even more rich with moral quandaries and elusive questions of treachery, friendship and ambiguity. The exceptional Chandlerisms are still there. Such as “the girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” and “I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string” and “it was so quiet that you almost heard the temperature drop as you came in the door.” But also there is a sadness that permeates the pages and infuses each bon mot with a tinge of regret.

Chandler’s wife (a good deal older than he) was dying of cancer as he penned The Long Goodbye. No doubt the title and the heart of the story itself were wrapped up in his musings about her. Like many writers, Chandler both benefited from and battled alcoholism for much of his life. He was an English-born American who came to understand and write about this country in ways that are still making writers envious to this day. Chances are he will continue to do so for centuries to come.

In 1973, The Long Goodbye was made into a movie directed by Robert Altman. Chandler’s detective was played by Elliot Gould. It’s a fine movie, steeped in the aura of the 1970s, not the 1950s in which the book was written. Gould’s was sort of a “new-age” take on the private dick that Humphrey Bogart had immortalized in the film made of The Big Sleep in 1946. Altman’s Long Goodbye is as much the director’s take on that particular decade as it is an homage to Raymond’s Chandler’s Los Angeles. But it’s well worth seeing and enjoying. Be aware however, liberties have been taken with the story. Particularly the ending.

Detective-story fan or not, find and read some Raymond Chandler. He’s in all the libraries and virtually all the book stores (the good ones anyway) have him listed in either mysteries, thrillers or classics. His work was a bit of all three. Yes, his creation, Philip Marlowe, became the private eye almost all others after him were meant to emulate. Yet none really did. Because no other author, including The Fiction Fortune Hunter, had the skill and style and humanity of Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler.