‘The Getaway’ – Jim Thompson: book review

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I am enjoying the reading ride on my Jim Thompson-as-writer learning curve, and having just finished The Getaway I now better understand the praise he has received from critics – as well as fellow writers, for example Stephen King – and of the three novels I have read this is clearly the best.

Calling a book the ‘best’ is simply an expression of opinion, but it seems to be the most assured of the three I now know [those other two being, as previously reviewed, Savage Night and The Grifters]. Its most impressive feature is the plot with its clever twists and turns, these still surprising despite my having seen the film versions [both the Baldwin/Basinger remake and the more notable, original McQueen/MacGraw]. I mention for obvious reasons: with reading The Grifters, I found my memory of that film version produced a slightly negative impact, with the role of Roy played by John Cusack and retaining in my mind’s eye too much of that actor’s disarming charm and amiability in the context of the book’s more discomforting context; whereas with the original film The Getaway the variances in that and the book’s storytelling/events were enough to differentiate, thus keeping the reading largely fresh and immediate, though it was at times still impossible to disassociate film characterisation and memorable scenes completely from the book’s originals.

I will begin my comments on the writing by looking at the book’s end because this is the most unusual, perhaps disturbing – though the nastiness of the killing throughout is hard to trump in this respect – and it is certainly an aspect of the novel that generates much critical discussion. Without spoiling for new readers, the ending presents a scenario that surprises by its existence as much as it insinuates an otherworldliness. It is without question narratively at odds with what precedes this, even though Thompson has indulged similar in the other novel I have read Savage Night, accepting here the peculiarity is an extension of the first-person corrupted narrative. In The Getaway, there is an unsettling move at the end of the story to a resolution that will fully challenge readers’ varying expectations and desires.

In other ways the assuredness of the writing is evident in the actual lack of quips I have been highlighting in his other work. There is one, however, that stands out when we first meet Mrs Clinton [Fran, the veterinarian’s wife], and it reflects similar sexist descriptions/assertions Thompson has written elsewhere – a vestige of the gangster noir/pulp fiction in which all his books reside. I quote as a striking contrast to the other kind of writing that will follow as illustration:

He’d seen this babe before – her many counterparts, that is. He knew her kin, distant and near. All her mamas, sisters, aunts, cousins and what have you. And he knew the name was Lowdown with a capital L. He wasn’t at all surprised to find her in a setup like this. Not after encountering her as a warden’s sister-in-law, the assistant treasurer of a country bank, and a supervisor of paroles. This babe got around. She was the original square-plug-in-a-round-hole kid. But she never changed any. She had that good old Lowdown blood in her, and the right guy could bring it out.

As I build up my personal view of Thompson as writer – still only based on three texts – another aspect I will comment on here, but referenced before about The Grifters, is his cynicism, a little of that evident in the quote above. Whereas I have called it ‘redneck’ before, I do sense a wiser and more universal, psychological expression in the extract that follows, and it is more knowing about the human psyche than cynical about the human condition. Here is the passage about Doc’s wife Carol, and the complexity of its thinking, reflected in the complexity of its structuring, demonstrates that stark contrast when compared with the preceding quote:

Her mind moved around and around the subject, moving with a kind of fuzzy firmness. With no coherent thought process, she arrived at a conviction – a habit with the basically insecure; an insecurity whose seeds are invariably planted earlier, in under- or over protectiveness, in a distrust of parental authority which becomes all authority. It can later, with maturity – a flexible concept – be laughed away, dispelled by determined clear thinking. Or it can be encouraged by self-abusive resentment and brooding self-pity. It can grow ever greater until the original authority becomes intolerable, and a change becomes imperative. Not to a radical one in thinking; that would be too troublesome, too painful. The change is simply to authority in another guise which, in time, and under any great stress, must be distrusted and resented even more than the first.

This is I feel a compulsive authorial expression of knowing. It isn’t critical to the storyline at this moment. Far from it. That storyline, by the way, with its exploration of confinement, is one of the most gripping in the whole novel. There is no need to understand the human condition as reflected in this: the vivid description of that internment shows us all we need to know, though we might wish it hadn’t.

There are many more telling, understanding observations in this book as Doc and Carol in particular make their getaway journey [Rudy’s is more rudimentary; his behaviour as inexcusable but I think we care less] and one of the other memorable ones is when Thompson spends narrative time with the sharecroppers. The brutal world in which they live is one of many presented in the story, but theirs is in a number of ways made appealing.

Savage Night was written in 1953, The Getaway in 1958, and The Grifters in 1963. The ten years between the first and third wouldn’t seem to account for the narrative differences between those two, considering how The Getaway is, as I have stated at the start of this review, superior in style and effectiveness – though one could argue that the at times superficiality in Savage Night is the very essence of Carl Bigelow.

And now having arrived at this surer appreciation of Jim Thompson as writer – though still early days in overall reading of his output – I have returned to reading The Killer Inside Me. I said in a previous posting that I couldn’t get into this novel. I have now. Very much so.

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