The Dream That Never Died
November 7, 2015
FOR JIM THOMPSON, it was a life of glorious writing trapped in the web of an inglorious ending.
In a frayed world of harsh realism, his stories cut to the quick.
They were raw.
They were savage.
They were possessed with a dark and poetic beauty.
Read an example:
Nature had banked a billion dollars under the ground, banked it in the black liquid currency of oil. And in tapping that treasury, man had spent millions on towering derricks, hissing boilers, and sinuous miles of pipe. But on the people who lived there, on the outskirts of the world’s greatest oilfield, both nature and man had skimped. Poverty-stricken, wretched, they clung to a miserable existence. On the crest of this wave of wealth they starved. And, as is always the case where great wealth is contrasted with deplorable poverty, the evil overshadowed the good. Death loved such places.
Jim Thompson and his characters walked the mean streets of mean towns, followed the back roads to back water towns, knew what lay in the shadows and feared it.
They weren’t like you and I.
They weren’t like anyone you and I know.
But they existed.
They were the nothing people.
They hid in the night.
He did not write mysteries.
He did not write thrillers.
He wrote crime.
Pure and simple.
His characters did not fall in love.
Lust was an option.
His characters seldom saw the sunshine.
His characters died.
They did not have happy ever afters.
Most did not even have ever afters.
Jim Thompson was a brilliant purveyor of pulp fiction.
He did not invent noir.
But no one wrote it better.
He once said: I studied crime a science that could be and had to be mastered – and I mastered it, I knew where to strike, when to strike, how to strike. I knew how to make a phantom-like departure, with no clues left behind me, and puzzled cops running around in circles, complaining of aching flat feet. The burglar tools and techniques I invented set a standard still used in the underworld although criminals today, I am told, do not have the same skill and nerve I possessed.
Jim Thompson was a lot of things.
Humble was not one of them.
He scratched, clawed, and climbed his way to the top of the literary world in the 1940s and ‘50s.
But he was never recognized by critics and scholars as a literary genius.
He was simply one of the pulp boys – catalogued alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
He didn’t sugar coat life.
He simply wrote about the intense rage lying just beneath the calm surface of life.
He told stories with the cold, dark, imagery no one else possessed.
No one else saw what Jim Thompson saw.
But deep inside he had a dream.
He was like all writers.
The dream kept burning even when the wax on the candle burned out.
He was old.
He was bitter.
He was no longer at the top, and it had been a long, hard fall to the bottom.
Jim Thompson was dying in 1977, and he knew it.
His books had been out of print for almost two decades.
He knew he would never write again.
He told his wife to protect and hang onto his manuscripts, his papers, and his copyrights. “Just you wait,” he said with a ragged breath. “I’ll become famous after I’m dead about ten years.”
Ten years later, Jim Thompson had been forgotten.
But thirteen years later, his deathbed prophecy finally hit pay dirt. In 1990, his novel, The Grifters, came to the motion picture screen, starring Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Benning. The movie captured for Academy Award nominations. During the same year, the silver screen featured adaptions of two other Jim Thompson novels, After Dark, My Sweet and The Kill-Off. Three years later, Tom Cruise directed a film based on his short story, The Frightening Frammis, for Showtime. The year 1994 saw a remake of The Getaway with Kim Bassinger and Alec Baldwin.
Jim Thompson was back in the spotlight.
Jim Thompson was back on top.
And critics were finally recognizing him as “an enduring and significant American writer.”
Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, said, “I think you’d have to say this whole Thompson revival somehow matches Jim’s view of life, that he gets his fifteen minutes of fame thirteen years after his death.”
Old writers may fade away.
Their dreams never do.