The Grifters – Jim Thompson

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No, there probably aren’t any ‘good’ characters in this novel. Roy Dillon is the nearest. He certainly isn’t evil. After a tough upbringing by an indifferent, even harsh mother, he has done well to get where he is in life. This has included criminal activity, but he plays the short con rather than the long and this wouldn’t seem to cause his victims any major harm. In most cases they would seem in fact to be victims of their own naivety which Roy merely exploits. And for one brief moment Roy might have achieved the morally sound life of an ordinary person, yet this just doesn’t work out.

But Roy is likeable. This isn’t the case with Lily, his mother, for factors I have already mentioned. Bobo Jusus demonstrates his brutality and thus we aren’t going to warm to him. Moira is more complex, at first, and I don’t want to spoil things too much by elaborating. Some of the happiest moments in the book do occur between her and Roy, sexually; however, this is not enough for her to attain an enduring status of goodness. At all.

Carol, on the other hand, must be a ‘good’ person. She is honest and hard-working and caring. But she is a victim too, horrendously as a child, and then later as an adult when working as a nurse. Roy would appear to have tender thoughts towards her – an act of goodness, perhaps – though these may be more to do with guilt. Finally, there is the minor character Perk who is ironically responsible for Roy seeing a way to another life, but Percival Kaggs is essentially a smartass.

The Grifters is not pulp fiction. As I have written previously, Thompson’s writing here is imbued with a knowing tone about the realities of the human condition, delivered at times through the kind of ‘quips’ I have already quoted in two previous references on this blog, and of course through the narrative arc of the story and all that happens. There are also moments, albeit brief, of poetic observation that capture a significant idea, signals it seems to me of deeper thought about the world we live in than the superficial preoccupations of a pulp narrative.

I have compared this with his other novella Savage Night – indeed, the only other one I have read with which to compare – so that is limited to a slight judgement on Thompson overall as a writer. I have referred to what I called a ‘redneck cynicism’ in at least one observation he makes in The Grifters, and in his reference to Carol and a concentration camp there does seem to be a ruthless element of the gratuitous over the meaningful. But these are snippets from the whole. And these are aspects of the effective storywriting, obviously. It is a very good story.

I have read about Thompson’s use of the unreliable narrator, and I have already challenged this is connection with Carl Bigelo from Savage Night. Although The Grifters is written in the third person [so perhaps this is the key stylistic caveat here!] I don’t see how Roy Dillon can ever be regarded as this when we are having his thinking presented to us. He is always shown as being totally straight about thoughts and feelings – including doubts – and what he sees. Indeed, returning to this question of any inherent goodness he as a character might possess: his candour in the reported admission of a complete lack of emotion for the soldiers he grifts on the train later in the story is crystal clear on both aspects of respectively reliable narration and any urge to being ‘good’.

My next Thompson read will be The Getaway. I am looking forward.

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Uncut Magazine – Biba and Granny’s

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An interesting article in the current edition of Uncut is about London fashion developments and outlets in the early psychedelic sixties, featuring Granny’s, Apple Tailoring and Biba, among others.

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The period focused on in the article was a little before my time in terms of experiencing first-hand: I wasn’t hitching to London [from Suffolk] on a regular basis until the early 70s, and staying then at an older friend’s place in Putney, also experiencing quite a bit by this farout time. I did go to Portobello Road and Carnaby Street sometime in 1968/69 because I got Black Sabbath’s first album at the former.

I went to Biba in the early 70s, maybe 1973. And I bought something: a pair of £1 glitter wellington boots [all I could afford, to be honest] but also because I wore these on the farm where I was working at the time. I found the following picture online so these weren’t mine. And I do think the pair I had was black with glitter. I wouldn’t have worn blue to work.

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Grifters’ Quip 2

The Grifters is a fine book. Still reading, the third person narrative I have mentioned before speaks in the mature and knowing tone of a confident writer. A writer who teases with his sardonic and often tasteless wit, but who also makes apparently light asides that reveal other avenues of thought. A close friend told me the other day to stop looking for ‘good’ characters in Thompson’s books, and he may well be right. But we’ll both agree there is plenty of good writing, and writing that is even better:

Moira watched as he hurried away, her carefully composed features concealing an incipient snicker. Now, wasn’t that something, she thought. No wonder the world was going to hell when a grown man pranced around in a monkey suit, brown-nosing dames who made a big deal out of ordering a belt of booze. Where had it all started? she wondered. Where the beginning of this detour which had sidetracked civilisation into mixing drinks with one hand and stirring up bombs with the other?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Two Scavengers in a Truck with Me

I didn’t realise this was still out there, and came across last night, checking I admit.

The poem is no longer studied for GCSE here. Produced by Devon Curriculum Services, I enjoyed making this and another, the second about the poem What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov, performed with some of my students reading as well. Great days.

If I made this one again my commentary would be far less ‘reasonable’. Ferlinghetti was angry, not simply observational. I should have made much more about his disdain. But there you go – pleased with my selection of Janis Joplin for the soundtrack!

Confession: I was once a grifter too….

I didn’t know I’d been a grifter. Or a part of working with other grifters. It was a long time ago and I knew then it wasn’t strictly legal. I knew it was dangerous, but that was nothing to do with the issue of legality.

It’s an anecdote I’ve told for years – a true story – but I never fully understood the details, and this is the first time I have written about it anywhere. Yet I was involved and made quite a useful bit of money for me at that time and at my age. I was rather young to be placing largish bets on horses, but that’s what I was doing. Lots of money to be betting for me at that time and at my age. Underage.

It only made sense today, oddly, some 45 years later. I’m reading Jim Thompson’s The Grifters and in an early chapter Lilly Dillon is at the racetrack involved in a betting scam for her boss Bobo Justus. Without going into the specifics of the story and that chapter, it was clear that her scam was similar to the one in which I had been involved, though I don’t think it was exactly the same. In essence, however, the similarities are these: betting is organised at a wide [State-wide?]/national level and this is to do with manipulating the odds on horses to win. I recall it being the Tote here in the UK back in the early 70s. The betting linked to this – and as I’ve said, I don’t think it is the same as in the novel – is on second and/or third ‘favourites’ to win. By orchestrating many and large bets on the outright favourite to win, it lowered the odds that would be paid on this eventuality, but consequently raised the odds on second and third favourites should they win. The illicit betting linked to this was to have predetermined bets placed around the country on those second and third favourites – the law of averages being that one or two [or more] would actually win each betting session – and with colossal nationwide betting on these, such inevitable winnings would be massive.

I’m not trying to duck out of a ‘criminal’ tag and past here, but I don’t know that it was definitely illegal, though it was certainly unacceptable/unethical/unorthodox. Or some other un-excuse. That’s what I was told. That’s what I believed.

The quasi-criminal element therefore was in organising the nationwide betting on the predetermined horses, and this also of course included the Tote betting. Whoever did this had to have a lot of money and had to have a nationwide network of people to carry out the betting. I’m guessing that certain kinds of people are predisposed and in experienced positions to carry out this kind of ‘underground’ business.

So I’m seventeen years old and studying at college post-GCEs and doing this somewhere in the south east of the country [I know: all these euphemisms and this seemingly silly subterfuge]. And without going into specific details of this either – not that I can genuinely remember any about the person – I become acquainted with another American [though this factor is quite irrelevant to the story, just an interesting coincidence] and he ‘invites’ me to become involved in this betting scenario to earn some money.

The deal is that he will pay me £5 a day – a lot then to do all I had to do – and he would also give me the cash to bet on the horses that had been selected. I would be given the names of betting shops to do this in, and of course the races in which the named horses would be running. I was given specific betting shops to use because he would be betting in other ones: placing bets for the people who organised the nationwide scam and who supplied him with the highly secret names of selected horses each race day. This is why it was dangerous. He was getting me to work for him. Whilst the whole idea and implementation of it was meant to be an absolute private and secret activity – for very obvious reasons – he was taking a considerable risk to ‘steal’ this information and use for his benefit, and mine. I don’t believe I fully realised the potential problem this might have caused for him and me should our arrangement have been discovered, though he did warn that I had to keep our activity completely private and secret [I do understand the deep irony] because if found out he would be harmed. For some reason I hadn’t at that time extrapolated on such a cautioning.

We would bet most often in the same town where we lived but would also travel further afield, taking the bus and train to other places. I don’t know how much he was betting, but I would be placing 5, 10 and 20 pound bets for him on the designated list of horses that would be written on a piece of paper for me each time. I need to stress: this was probably 1971 so those were significant single bets to be placing – maybe three or four times in a single betting shop – and I was then a long-haired student-type [yes, hippie] and it must have seemed odd that I had that much money to bet. And to clearly if only occasionally win. But remember, those wins would be significant because of the scam being played nationwide.

Indeed, the oddity was noted. There were times when I had bets refused. No reason given, just refused [and again I can’t genuinely remember what if any reasons were given, but I recall this happened]. And this is when we would travel further afield – to find fresh territory.

I also think this supports my notion that what I was doing wasn’t illegal. Either in individual betting shops or collectively in a town, word got round that people were betting significant sums of money and my friend also experienced occasional refused bets, presumably on the basis that it was obvious a scam was going on, but nothing could be proven. It wasn’t as if horses or riders were being hobbled or anything else overtly criminal was happening. Surely.

I would like to have told this true story as a noir narrative in the style of Jim Thompson, but it would need dialogue and I really haven’t got the information from 45 years ago to either use or even make up. And I’d have to work too hard to bring this out of and above the transactional, as engaging as a true reflection I hope it is. This next and final bit does, however, deserve its drama, so I hope the continued factual recounting will do it justice.

I don’t know if this was the end of our partnership, but I suspect so. Remember, I’d come to all of this completely new. I’d never been in a betting shop before I started this casual job, taking time off college to do so. My attendance record was so bad anyway that this merely slotted something tangible into the gaps, though unknown to others. Whilst I must have picked up the workings of the job quite quickly, and some of the protocols that made me seem reasonably experienced, it was a steep learning curve that was still rising. Whilst I had the information given to me on the sheet of paper about what horses to bet on, I don’t think this list was ever definitive. There would be fortuities, and decisions to make accordingly. I think I had to scrutinise the blackboards to see about whether horses were actually running on the day [they could be withdrawn for a number of reasons], or other varying information. Again, these specifics are hazy.

What I remember with clarity is my friend’s huge smile when he met me as I was exiting the betting shop. We’d had a substantial win. The preordained horse had won and the odds were significantly in our favour. It was a horse I had been told to place a large bet on too, whatever that figure was – probably the £20, but at the odds given that was a return in the hundreds. 1971 remember. Not high rollers, either of us. Me especially, but he was just an ordinary guy chancing things in addition to his day job. And that money was all for him. Not the syndicate. He was being paid a flat fee as well as me [obviously more than £5] but all the winnings he made went back to the boss, whoever that was. I was never told. This was the private and secret deal and score between us he had been waiting for. Bigger than any single winning to date, certainly that I could recall.

But I hadn’t placed the bet. I’d like to finish this with the crucial detail, but I had simply missed it. I hadn’t seen the name on the blackboard, to the best of my still somewhat guilty recollection. Something like that. And not entirely my fault. I’m 17, inexperienced, knowing I was betting underage, and trying to keep on top of tasks that on the surface were straightforward in their organisation, but occasionally complicated by the moment. I don’t know.

He was crestfallen. That was an abrupt and brutal stop to his expectations. I was pretty damn embarrassed. I can’t imagine I knew what to say. I don’t believe I even felt like protesting my innocence, apart from explaining I’d missed seeing it and it hadn’t been clear. What can you say?

I also feel in the end he didn’t really give me a hard time. After that initial shock – and I’m sure for a little time afterwards, probably as we headed home – I think he just left it alone. What could he do? It was between him and me. Holding a lot of money for the other/s must have made his feelings significantly worse, but that wasn’t anywhere he could go to sort this. I don’t, as I’ve said, think that was the last time we worked together on this. But it couldn’t have continued for much longer.

I was once a grifter. Not very successfully, and not for long, but I was one and it’s taken 45 years to give myself a tag I’m quite proud to have, thanks to Jim Thompson.

Grifters’ Quip 1

I’m now reading Jim Thompson’s The Grifters and will post some occasional observations as I do so.

Only on his second novel proper [giving up on The Killer Inside Me] so still learning, I have quickly discovered that his narrative style here is significantly different to Savage Night, the latter as I have already commented presented in a pulp style, though this even more clearly now a purposeful reflection of the overall demeanour behind its first person voice  of Carl Bigelow. With The Grifters it is third person and thus represents Thompson’s voice much more clearly. I will write more on this later.

I won’t be expecting a run of quips, but I do enjoy those I find. Before I quote the one for today, I will add that the focus on sexuality is less macho [marginally…] than in Savage Night, again for the same first person narrative reasons, and it is more brightly playful and sensual – accepting from a male point of view – as at the end of Chapter 3. No, I won’t be quoting. Get and read yourself.

The quip I will be quoting is playful too, but there is a redneck cynicism that is saying more about Thompson as writer than the book’s main character Roy Dillon. In describing the church where Roy first meets his eventual girlfriend Moria Langtry, we get this:

It was one of those screwball outfits which seem to flourish on the West Coast. The head clown was a yogi or a swami or something of that kind. While his audience listened as though hypnotized, he droned on and on of the Supreme Wisdom of the East, never once explaining why the world’s highest incidence of disease, death and illiteracy endured at the font of said wisdom.

I know. World political history has a thing or two to say about that.

Jim Thompson – Savage Night, book review

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I have just finished reading Jim Thompson’s novella Savage Night. I have come late to him, and I think I picked up his name as a mention from my favourite contemporary writer Willy Vlautin. As I have said in recent postings about Thompson’s ‘quips’, I couldn’t get interested in his novel The Killer Inside Me, but I have enjoyed this book immensely.

On those quips: they are actually a rarity. There is ongoing humour in the story, but the comic quips that I likened to though distinguished from Chandler are a very small part of his style. The humour is in the untrustworthy narration, though I don’t entirely agree with the tag of him, in the literary sense, as an ‘unreliable narrator’, which is a specific attribute/stylistic feature. For me it is more of a tease. The protagonist Carl Bigelow [Charlie ‘Little’ Bigger] is a hired killer and therefore whilst it is easy to assume he doesn’t have a noble moral code it is also equally certain he cannot be trusted. Indeed, much of the narrative in this book is concerned with his ongoing subterfuge as he inveigles himself into the life and work of the small town of Peardale. So of course he is unreliable.

Coming new to Thompson, as I have said, I undertook some quick Wikipedia research about him and was interested in the reported observation by the writer R.V. Cassill that many more famous crime writers, including Raymond Chandler, didn’t ever write a book within miles of Thompson. I don’t know the full context of this quote, and it is suggested that it refers specifically to the harrowing directness of Thompson’s writing [and I really only know SN], but it isn’t a comparison I would readily accept with respect to Chandler. Thompson’s writing is often intentionally ‘pulp’ in its style – and some of that directness is for effect only – and there is a macho attitude in references to any women, this too a requisite of pulp fiction. Sexuality is more explicit than it is with Chandler, but with Thompson too there is still a coyness about it, a reflection of the similar times in which both authors were writing, but I do think Thompson’s always lacks the inherent grace there is with Chandler’s similar representations.

That said, the sexual shenanigans of Carl are described as blunt realities, and even occasionally as complex with respect to the disabled Ruth, but more crucially they do underpin his tough-guy persona that we both believe and doubt. We doubt because of his stature – he is five foot tall – and his physical atrophying throughout the story: he wears false teeth and contact lenses to disguise his unhealthy appearance, and he is ill with tuberculosis.  We believe because we have first-hand evidence of his ruthless killing, but also because one of the most powerful parts of the story is a short section that describes the impact of him losing his temper, both in the first person revelation of his inner thoughts and feelings as they erupt and explode, and in the description of his outward behaviour in a crowd of people as this is happening. It is a genuinely tense moment.

Throughout the novella we are as readers kept guessing about Carl’s full intentions in his commitment to kill, a job he has been instructed to carry out by The Man who is a mysterious but seemingly omnipotent criminal boss, and because Carl too is constantly second-guessing the role, if any, of other characters with whom he lives, works and makes love because they may also be in the employ of The Man. This becomes a paranoia that begins to diminish Carl’s confidence, a confidence already seen as part sham [for example, his appearance, including the wearing of elevator shoes] but one that has equally allowed him to dupe and convince others of his good nature, including the town sheriff and his wife – and some of the best comedy in the book is reserved for the playful relationship that develops between Carl and Bessie.

These are the intrigues of good writing. Without spoiling the ending, but having to make this important point about the novella’s close from a storytelling point of view, there is a stunning gothic and surreal injection as the book draws to a close. Thompson probably hasn’t sustained a pulp style merely to have its simplicities exploded and exposed by the rich intensity of the novella’s final brisk chapters, but this is nonetheless an effect. I want to say more, but to do so would spoil for anyone who hasn’t read, so don’t read the next paragraph!

In part a metaphor for Carl’s disintegrating body but also grip on reality, and in part simply a creative impulse from Thompson as writer – something that seems artistically compulsive – the closing narrative is disturbingly outlandish but also ambiguous. It is also harrowing, and this seems to be, from what I have read about his wider work, a fundamental feature. Throughout the whole story there has been little inclination to this frighteningly impressionistic content and writing style, apart from one episode when Carl first beds Ruth, and once again as readers we have been teased, this time by an abrupt and brutal transformation in describing.

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