Jim Thompson: Fiction or Life?

If you read Jim Thompson’s autobiography, Bad Boy, you could easily think that Thompson lived a life of mythic proportions.  His exploits were phenomenal and thrilling.  He barely escaped from many harrowing experiences with his life.  He was forced to flee town with his mother and sisters after cheating the mob out of several thousands of dollars.  If you read Jim Thompson’s biography, Savage Art, you’ll find out, disappointingly, that he lied about a great many things.  From the standpoint of Bad Boy, it is clear he lied about that cliff hanging ending in a broken down car laughing as Al Capone’s boys closed in on him.  I was grievously disappointed by the loss of that myth.  Maybe Thompson was, too.  He wanted to be larger than life, wanted people to perceive him as something different.  In Savage Art, Robert Polito quotes Freddie, Thompson’s little sister, “ ‘When I read that story in Bad Boy about the federal agents taking his whiskey and the family being run out of Texas,’ Freddie noted, ‘I said to him, ‘You know that didn’t happen, Jimmie, I was there.’ He answered, ‘You know and I know,’ and just sort of chuckled.’” (Polito, 135).

An entire paper could be written on the discrepancies between what Jim Thompson said about his life and what was true.  Perhaps a great deal of the truth is more likely to be found in his fiction than the “non-fiction.”  What really interests me, though, as a writer, is how the life he led influenced his fiction, where he got his ideas from, based upon both his account in Bad Boy and Polito’s in Savage Art. A lot of Thompson’s novels seem to take a grain of truth from his life and expand it into a dark and twisted tale that could reveal a great deal more about Thompson than his rollicking good time book Bad Boy and his other autobiographical book, Roughneck. Almost any of the novels would make excellent examples, but I’ve chosen, for the sake of time and space, to limit my investigation to three novels (The Killer Inside Me, A Swell Looking Babe, and Pop. 1280I) and the autobiography and biography.  All three of these novels have specific autobiographical roots that are both fascinating and disturbing.

Perhaps, of the three, A Swell Looking Babe, is the easiest to look at autobiographically.  The protagonist, Dusty, is a bellboy at a nice hotel.  Thompson worked as a bellboy for quite a while in high school. Polito comments on the similarities in Savage Art:

Bill “Dusty” Rhodes is an intelligent, handsome night bell boy (like Jim, nicknamed “Dolly”) at the Manton Hotel who walks the razor edge of the Texas underworld…If Dusty seems a terrifying projection of Jim Thompson in the Hotel Texas during the mid-1920s, Professor Rhodes is a fair facsimile of Pop, circa 1932.  The aloof, sullen son has long been a “disappointment” to his father, his “conduct…below standard,” as Thompson encapsulates in a snug parallel to…Bad Boy (Polito, 378).

The voices used to describe the Manton where Dusty works and the Hotel Texas where Thompson worked are eerily similar.  Although the Manton seems stricter in upholding rules than the Hotel Texas, it cannot be missed that the one was fashioned on the earlier one.  In Bad Boy, Thompson tells us:

Nominally there were strictly enforced rules against such things as getting drunk on duty, intimacy with lady guests and forcing tips from the stingy.  But the management could have knowledge that you were guilty of all those crimes, and as long as you did them in such a way as not to give rise to complaints or disturb the routine of the hotel, nothing would be done.  Rather, you would be regarded as a boy who knew his way around and was on his toes…Briefly he [the bellboy] had to be nervy and quick-thinking.  He had to be adequate to any emergency.  And a boy who was inadequate in his own emergencies was also apt to be so in those concerning the hotel. (Thompson, Bad Boy, 105-6)

In A Swell-Looking Babe, the superintendent sternly tells Dusty:

“We are not running any Sunday school, of course.  As long as our guests are quiet about it, we’ll put up with a little hanky-panky.  But we don’t—and you don’t—mix into it, see?  Don’t get friendly with a woman, even if she does seem to invite it.  You might be mistaken.  She might change her mind.  And the hotel would have a hell of a lawsuit on its hands.” (A Swell Looking Babe, 3)

A “strictly enforced rule” that Dusty goes on to break, resulting in the mess he gets himself into throughout the rest of the book.  Bellboys at the Manton are also not supposed to drink or smoke on duty, both of which Dusty does, as did Thompson.  But this one instance where Thompson cleaned up his life in his autobiography.   The truth was far closer to the sordidness that descends in A Swell-Looking Babe.  “Through long, wild nights at the Hotel Texas, Jimmie moonlighted as a bootlegger, a drug peddler, a grifter, a pimp, and a male escort” (Polito, 105).  While none of these actual activities appear in A Swell-Looking Babe, Dusty retreats into the even more sordid world of robbery and eventually murder.

Other similarities in the novel, the autobiography and biography abound.  Both Dusty and Thompson worked the night shift, struggling to get by in the day.  Thompson attempted to go from work to school with little or no sleep:

Released from work at 7 in the morning, he barely had time to shower and change in the bellhops’ locker room before he was due at school.  Classes…lasted until 3:30 in the afternoon.  Sleep occupied the early evening—yet not too much of it, as Jimmie needed to rise by 9:30 in order to eat and be back at the Hotel Texas for his shift at 11.  Homework might be accomplished between calls in the slow dawn hours; but his leisure to study on the job can be judged by the fact that after two years at the hotel he had yet to complete his junior courses (Polito, 107).

While Thompson ages Dusty, getting him out of high school, he is forced to drop out of college to work, and thus gives up his dream of being a doctor.  The backwards schedule and sleep deprivation force themselves into the narrative through the inconvenience of visits to the lawyer and receiving the groceries being delivered and answering the telephone and so forth and so on.  Dusty rarely gets more sleep than Thompson did.

Perhaps the most disturbing projection in A Swell Looking Babe, is Dusty’s incestuous feelings for his mother and hatred for his father.  I suppose they aren’t actually incestuous, since Thompson very carefully and pointedly lets us know that Dusty was adopted, but they come as close as possible.  In the novel, Dusty nearly sleeps with his mother, and then replaces her with Marcia Hillis, who reminds him of Mom.  In an almost classic Oedipal tale, Dusty also is his father’s downfall, signing his name to a petition that costs him his job and then walking out when his father is dying.  The death scene, says Polito, is remarkably like the one that Thompson imagined for his father in Now and on Earth, which he told as the truth to friends for years.

The incestuous yearnings are harder to understand in Thompson.  His mother is a marginal presence in Bad Boy, loved, but not worshipped in any way.  Yet, Thompson’s nephew Tony Kouba told Polito that “Jimmie was over-mothered.  From my own mother [Thompson’s older sister, Maxine] I know that his mother would have killed herself to get him anything he wanted.  He moved out from this heavily mothered environment into a really tough, wild place.  There were some strange circumstances at that hotel, and Jimmie wasn’t cut from that cloth” (Polito, 379).  So, perhaps his connection to his mother becomes Dusty’s obsession as he tries to figure out how he got himself into this precarious situation.  Thompson’s mastery of the psychological undertones give what could otherwise be a good crime novel (no gratuitous violence and killing for fun) into a disturbing work that peers into the human psyche and gives us an eerie look into Thompson’s own life and mind.

The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 also have definite roots in Thompson’s own life

but not as blatant as A Swell Looking Babe.  In A Swell Looking Babe, Thompson takes a great many things that did happen and fictionalizes them and faintly disguises them, and sort of explores what could have happened at the Hotel Texas when he was entrenched in the underworld.  While The Killer Inside Me, springs from an encounter Thompson had, there aren’t as many direct correlations.  Thompson himself is not a character in either novel.  On the surface, both novels are set in small, southern towns, like the ones Thompson grew up in.  Their main characters are sheriffs, like his father was.  In fact, it could be said that these are Thompson’s retelling of what could have happened with his father, rather than with himself, as in A Swell-Looking Babe.  The relationship with his father is far deeper in Jim Thompson’s life, and is a place that he merely glosses over in his autobiography, but Polito tries to sort it out.  However, lets start with the obvious.

Lou Ford, according to Thompson in Bad Boy, is loosely based on an encounter he had with a deputy while working the oil fields.  He had failed to appear for a court hearing, and the deputy came out to find him Jim Thompson tells of their encounter in Bad Boy:

“And that’s a fact,” I snapped. “All right, let’s get going.”  He went on grinning at me.  In fact, his grin broadened a little.  But it was fixed, humorless, and a veil seemed to drop over his eyes.

“What makes you so sure,” he said softly, “you’re going anywhere?…Awful lonesome out here, ain’t it?  Ain’t another soul for miles around but you and me…Lived here all my life.  Everyone knows me.  No one knows you.  And we’re all alone.  What do you make o’ that, a smart fella like you?  You’ve been around.  You’re all full of piss and high spirits.  What do you think an ol’ stupid country boy might do in a case like this?”

He stared at me, steadily, the grin baring his teeth.  I stood paralyzed and wordless, a great cold lump forming in my stomach.  The wind whined and moaned through the derrick.  He spoke again, as though in answer to a point I had raised.

“Don’t need one,” he said.  “Ain’t nothing you can do with a gun that you can’t do a better way.  Don’t see nothin’ around here I’d need a gun for.”

He shifted his feet slightly.  The muscles in his shoulders bunched.  He took a pair of black kid gloves from his pocket, and drew them on slowly.  He smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said.  “Tell you a couple of things.  There ain’t no way of telling what a man is by looking at him. There ain’t no way of knowing what he’ll do if he has the chance.  You think maybe you can remember that?” (Thompson, Bad Boy, 154­).

Thompson goes on to mull over the psychological make up of that deputy, how he had tried to be amiable, and when Jim didn’t respond, he’d tried something else.  Thompson didn’t know if the deputy would have killed him, because the deputy didn’t know either.  Thompson finishes the story saying, “Finally, as I matured, I was able to re-create him on paper—the sardonic, likeable murderer of my fourth novel, The Killer Inside Me.  But I was a long time doing it—almost thirty years.  And I still haven’t gotten him out of my mind” (Bad Boy, 155).

That idea that people are not what they seem and that you can’t tell what a man will do by the way he looks is scattered throughout most of Thompson’s novels, but it is particularly blatant in The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280.  Like the deputy of Thompson’s oil fields, both Lou Ford and Nick Corey—the respective protagonists—appear to be handsome, mild-mannered, aw shucks kind of men.  But underneath they are both amoral killers.  Lou is more sadistic, but Nick is a little more frightening.  His motives actually seemed easier to understand than Lou’s did, until he decides he’s on a mission from God and it is his duty to kill and ruin these people.  Then I started to wonder about his sanity as well:

“Just because I put temptation in front of people, it don’t mean they got to pick it up.”

“I asked you a question, damn you!  Who planned those murders?  Who tells a lie every time he draws a breath?  Who the hell is it that’s been fornicating with me, and God knows how many others?”

“Oh, well,” I said.  “It don’t count when I do those things.”

“It don’t count!  What the hell do you mean?”

I said I meant I was just doing my job, following the holy precepts laid down in the Bible.  “It’s what I’m supposed to do, you know, to punish the heck out of people for bein’ people.  To coax them into revealin’ theirselves, an’ then kick the crap out of ‘em.   And it’s a god-danged hard job, Rose, honey, and I figure if I can get a little pleasure in the process of trappin’ folks I’m mighty well entitled to it. (Thompson, Pop. 1280, 205-6).

While Lou Ford doesn’t justify what he does with religion, he does blame it on his “sickness” which is, supposedly, paranoid schizophrenia.  Over and over he tells us that his victims just had to die.  Surely we saw that.  They had to.

Interestingly, The Killer Inside Me is considered to be Thompson’s first paperback masterpiece and Pop. 1280 his last.  Their sheriffs and towns are very similar.  Both sheriffs “loose their menace from behind masks of idiocy, crying havoc on the world, and the world of fiction” (Polito, 456).  Except for the brief glimpse of Thompson’s encounter with the deputy, these men do not show up in Bad Boy.  Sure, Thompson lets us know that his father took some bribes, but everyone did, and that is the only similarity he draws to his father and these men.  But Polito insists that Thompson diverted a lot of his own character and that of his father into these books.  “He [Thompson] exposed ambivalent and dangerous feelings by assuming an identity that is at once the insidious voice of madness and the naked voice of grief and pain” (Polito, 350).  In both novels there are the echoes that resound in A Swell-Looking Babe of the son who simply didn’t measure up to his father’s expectations, and the father who wasn’t very good at his job.

Thompson’s father was notorious for his schemes that inevitably took him away from his family.  He was finally kicked out of office as sheriff for embezzlement and forced to flee to Mexico for two years.  How much Thompson knew about that, but a real anger comes out of him in some of the works (including these four) that call his motives into question for the way his father and the sheriff figure in general are invoked.

For his writing about his father’s life in territorial Oklahoma, Thompson ennobled the sheriff whenever he invoked him by name—and then ridiculed him under other names, like Lou Ford and Nick Corey.  The books that purport to chronicle his father, Bad Boy and King Blood, advance a portrait that is respectful to the point of idolatry.  Yet their chest-thumping strain of aggrieved naivete hardly sounds persuasive, even if it were not so readily undermined by Oklahoma history.

The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, in turn, roil with Oedipal anger [as does A Swell Looking Babe]:  popular, smooth-tongued sheriffs unmasked as psychopathic killers.  In The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford’s ingratiating, aw-shucks posture becomes an ingenious torture device.  The cavalcade of slayings aside, Pop 1280 is probably Thompson’s full account of “Pop”—it is certainly his nastiest.  Thompson mugs at Sheriff Corey’s loutish overeating and obesity, his aggressive vitality, his lopsided learning, his corny maxims, hypocrisy, and dissembling, and his politician’s gusto for any self-serving deal…Yet The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280 revel in the suspicion that Sheriff Thompson was not what he appeared to be (Polito, 41-2).

Despite the similarities between Lou and Nick, Nick Corey ends up being even more frightening because he defies any psychological bracketing and his cover is almost impenetrable, even to his readers.  The novel is even darker than The Killer Inside Me because of how cloaked Nick’s malice and intelligence are.  We see them in Lou, and he tells us about the “sickness,” but Nick keeps his guard up even as he tells his story, sounding for all the world like a character in a Mark Twain story.  Polito goes so far as to call Corey a “demonic prankster.”  What’s even more disturbing is the way that Thompson uses his father’s characteristics to create Nick, as mentioned above.  Pop had an extravagant appetite; Nick is gargantuan.  Pop had all of a politician’s good will; Nick is positively servile.  Pop was a bit of a bully; Nick wreaks vengeance of nearly apocalyptic standards.  Even more interesting and disturbing: the one time Nick really drops his mask comes straight from an episode in Sheriff Thompson’s life.  According to his niece, “Sheriff Thompson enjoyed shocking people who pegged him ‘just an ignorant country fool’ by ‘suddenly…talking in a learned way about anatomy, or the Roman emperors, something they didn’t expect him to know about” (Polito, 453).  Compare this to a scene early in Pop. 1280:

I picked myself up, trying to rub my ass and my arm at the same time…

“Hurt your arm?” Ken said.  “Whereabouts?”

“I’m not positive,” I said.  “It could either be the radius or the ulna.”

…But of course Ken didn’t notice anything.  Ken had so much on his mind, I reckon, helping poor stupid fellas like me, that he maybe didn’t notice a lot of things. (Pop. 1280, 32)

Not noticing will, of course, be Ken’s downfall.  There cannot be a doubt that Thompson drew this from his father’s life.

There is a final interesting tie in with his own life.  In these three novels, at least, the killer doesn’t really get away with it.  Although Lou Ford is the only one we see (or suppose we see) get himself killed, there is a sense of doom for both Dusty and Nick.  Kossemeyer, Dusty’s father’s lawyer, has got Dusty figured out.  He knows Dusty was in on the robbery, he knows Dusty didn’t interfere when his father committed suicide, and he knows Dusty forged his father’s signature on the petition.  He may not be able to prove it in a court of law, but Marcia hears the accusations and shuts Dusty, literally, out of her life.  Since she is what he wanted, he has lost.  In the same way as Lou, Nick got too confident in his cover and Buck figures out the truth.  He knows what Nick is and threatens to turn him in if Nick won’t continue to destroy Ken.  Nick ends the novel with saying he doesn’t know what to do, but there is a sense that the jig is up, if you will.

In discussing with an editor why he should publish Thompson’s Getaway, Thompson establishes himself as an authority:

I have been on a first name basis with a number of criminals.  Following his release from prison, I was the room-mate one summer of the notorious bank-robber, “Airplane Red” Brown, and I served as best man at his wedding.  You’ll realize that I’m not bragging about this; as the son of a well-known peace officer, I am no admirer of criminals.  But this background does allow me to write with authority. (Polito, 106).

So, even as he lampoons his father in his fiction, Thompson still upholds some level of the “law” in not letting his criminals get off scot free.  There isn’t a sense of closure, because there is no real closure anytime a crime is committed.  Families will always suffer and repercussions will be felt for years.  However, there is some sort of sense of justice.  Lou is killed; Dusty loses the one thing he really wants; and Nick is recognized and treated as what he is.  I felt more sympathy for Dusty.  Perhaps because he is an extension of Thompson’s boyhood, he is painted that way, but he also isn’t nearly as gratuitously cruel as the two sheriffs.  Again—a reflection, perhaps, of how Thompson’s conflicted feelings played themselves out in fiction to help him come to terms with his relationship with his father, who is portrayed as both sadistic killer and helpless old man.

A common bit of advice given to writers is to “write what you know.”  I can’t remember how many times I have heard that.  Along with the deputy’s advice to never judge a man by what he looks like because you never know what he’ll do, Thompson obviously took the “write what you know” rule to heart.