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South of Heaven

South of Heaven

by Jim Thompson

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In the 1920s the worst place you could be was in that part of Texas that some people call "South of Heaven," and the worst thing you could be doing there was laying a gas pipeline, along with six-hundred other hoboes, juice-heads, and jailbirds. But that's exactly what Tommy Burwell was doing, even though he wasn't smart enough to know better. Even though


In the 1920s the worst place you could be was in that part of Texas that some people call "South of Heaven," and the worst thing you could be doing there was laying a gas pipeline, along with six-hundred other hoboes, juice-heads, and jailbirds. But that's exactly what Tommy Burwell was doing, even though he wasn't smart enough to know better. Even though "South of Heaven" is another term for hell.

Combining a tale of escalating savagery with a dead-eyed group portrait of men at the edge, Jim Thompson has produced a masterpiece of the American dissolute.

Editorial Reviews

The New Republic
Like Clint Eastwood’s pictures, it’s the stuff for rednecks, truckers, failures, psychopaths, and professors...one of the finest American writers and the most frightening, Thompson is the one on best terms with the devil.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.21(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt


As dawn speared across the Far West Texas prairie, the last of the night's heavy dew fell. I sat up shivering, looking down along the twisting bed of the dried-up creek where six hundred of us were jungled up while we waited for the pipeline job to start. The line was to be one of the biggest jobs in years -- all the way from out here in this high-lonely gas field to Port Arthur on the Gulf. But word of it had gone out weeks ago, and the men had been drifting in here all those weeks -- jailbirds, mission stiffs, hoboes -- and hardly a manjack among 'em with more than an empty gut and the raggedy-ass clothes he wore. One of the few exceptions (and he wasn't much of one) was the guy I traveled with, Fruit jar. He was dozing a few feet away from me, sprawled out on the cushions of his Model-T Ford. I toed him in the ribs, jerking my foot back fast as he sat up, cursing and flailing his arms.

"Huh? Hey? Whassa matter?" He glared wildly out of his red-rimmed eyes. "Whatcha doin', Tommy?"

"Thought I'd tell you I was going into town," I said. "See if I can get us something to scoff."

He stared at me a moment longer, figuring out what I'd said. Then, he suddenly winced and groaned and put on his smeary sun-glasses. Fruit jar was on canned heat -- about half the boes you saw out here were heat-heads. They eventually went blind from drinking it, and while they were getting that way even a very little light drove them crazy.

"You're a good boy, Tommy," he said, at last. "See if you can stem a little heat, huh?"

I said no, I wouldn't; hustling scoff grub was my limit. "You and me rubber-tramp it together, but that doesn't make me your punk."

"Aah, now, Tommy." He rubbed shaky hands over the stubble of his bloated face. "Well, maybe you can pick up a can of tin cow, huh? And maybe just about a quart of gasoline? The way I feel, a little milk and gas would make a mighty fine drink."

"No," I said.

He was still whining and begging as I walked away from him, and I decided that it was past time that we parted company. I'd be on a job soon, and I didn't owe him anything. Having a way of getting around was awfully handy out here, but I'd more than paid for any rides I'd got by changing tires and keeping the T-Ford running, and doing all the things that Fruit Jar was too drunk or lazy to do for himself.

I walked on up the creekbed toward town, stepping over and around the sleeping boes, brushing the twigs and dirt off my jeans and shirt. I was wearing a good hat, a gray city-style Stetson with the brim turned up front and back, and of course I had good stout shoes with an extra pair of soles nailed on them. That's one thing you learn when you make the big labor camps. Always wear a good hat and good shoes, so even if you don't have much in between, folks will know you're not a bum. A bo -- hobo -- yes, but not a bum. There's a big difference between the two.

Just around a turn in the creek bed, three boes were huddled around a little fire, warming up a can of last night's coffee grounds. I nodded to them, kind of hesitating, but they didn't nod back, and one of them took out a match and handed it to me. That's the hobo way of saying you're not welcome -- that you're to start your own fire, in other words. So I kept on going, rounding another bend. And then I came up short, my mouth failing open in surprise.

He was a tall, good-looking guy in his middle-thirties, lounged back against the grassy hillside. He was drinking from a half-pint bottle of bonded whiskey, and smoking a tailor-made cigarette. And he gave a lazy grin and a wink.

"Tommy, boy," he drawled, " 'light and look at your saddle, friend."

I couldn't speak or move for a minute; I was that surprised and glad to see him. Then, my voice came out in a yell, "Four Trey! Four Trey Whitey!"

"Please, Tommy" -- he winced, tapping his head. "Not so early in the morning."

I hunkered down in front of him, grinning from ear to ear. "Boy, am I ever tickled to see you!" I said. "Why, I heard you'd been killed."

"Just shot a few times, Tommy. Just cut up a little. It was the other guy that got killed."

"You figure on sitting-in here?"

"I have set in here, Tommy. And being reasonably sure that you'd be here, I set you in with me."

"Hey, that's great," I said. "That's sure good news, Four Trey."

"So act like it," he chuckled. "Drink up and smoke up."

He tossed me the bottle and a part-package of cigarettes. I lit up and took a long thirsty drink, and he took another bottle and another package of cigarettes from his pocket. We drank and smoked, not saying anything for a time. Just grinning and looking at each other, like old friends will when they come together.

"Yes, Tommy," he said, at last. "The sere and yellow days are gone, and the birds are about to bust their guts with singing. Briefly, the line starts hiring tomorrow, and you and I shall be working on it, and two weeks thence, with the coming of the first payday -- guess what we will be doing then, Tommy."

"Now, how could I ever guess?" I laughed.

He was sitting on a bindle of work clothes, but he wore an expensive suit and shoes and a snowy white shirt -- a white one, for Pete's sake! I was sure he was carrying a big roll, plenty to travel first-class. But he liked it this way, so here he was jungled up with six hundred other boes.

"So you've got the stroke on the gambling," I said, taking a small sip of the booze.

He nodded that he had. "The exclusive stroke, Tommy. It just happened that I knew some of the high-pressure from a drainage job in East Texas -- Higby, remember him? So it's you and me alone from here to the Gulf. You on blackjack and me with the dice. Now, about your cut..."

"Hell," I said. "I trust you, Four Trey."

Four Trey said drily that that was nice, but spelling things out was much nicer. "Anyway, we'll make it the usual. I bank the game, and you cut twenty per cent of the take. Fair enough?"

"Fair enough," I said.

Maybe I should tell you that contractors on pipeline jobs liked to have one or two straight gamblers around. Nor did they mind if a couple of women followed the camp, as long as they were clean and didn't come into the camp-proper. It wasn't often that a woman did follow it; it just wasn't practical, you know, roughing it on her own as much as a hundred miles from the nearest town. But there were always gamblers. Pipelining is rough, hard work, seven days a week, and gambling kept the men from getting restless. It also kept them broke enough so that they weren't always jumping the job.

"What kind of a job are we getting, Four Trey?" I asked, because we would have to live in the camp, naturally, and if you lived in camp you had to work. "Are we down for timekeeping again?"

He shook his head, looking a little unhappy for the first time. "I'm afraid not, Tommy. The banks or whoever it is that's backing the job are putting in their own timekeepers."

"Well... you mean we're going to have to muck it?"

"Oh, no. We're certainly not going to stoop to mucking. It just wouldn't be worth it, getting our hands all calloused with those long-handled spoons."

I said I could muck it, swing a pick and shovel with any man. But I was just as pleased to be doing something else. Four Trey said that I wouldn't like the job we were going to do.

"But it was the only halfway decent thing open, Tommy. The only job we could possibly hold, and handle our gambling."

"I don't care what it is," I said, "as long as it isn't powder monkey. I don't work with dynamite."

"Dyna's a good girl, Tommy. You can chew her up and spit her out, and she won't say a word."

"You..." I stared at him. "You mean, that's the job? Powder monkeyin'? You... you...." I choked up. "You think I'm goin' to powder monkey after what happened to...?"

"A real good girl, Dyna is," he wheedled. "She wears lousy perfume, and you get by-God hellish headaches from it. But safe? The safest stuff in the world."

"Sure, it is! That's why the job is open, why powder monkeys get wages and a half!"

"You had me fooled, Tommy. You never struck me as being a coward."

"I'm not a coward!" I snapped. "I just don't like dynamite, and you know why I don't!"

"I know," he said softly. "But that's the way it is, kid. I'm down for powder monkey, and you're down as my helper. That's what you do or you don't do anything."

I hesitated. I took another small drink. He caught my eye, nodded slowly.

"That's it, Tommy. Dyna or depart."

"But, dammit, Four Trey...

"So what's it going to be?"

There was only one thing I could say, and I said it. He grinned approvingly and held out his hand. "That's my boy. Let's shake on it."

We shook. I looked down at my hand and saw that there was a five-dollar bill in it.

"Happy birthday, Tommy," he said.

"Oh, now, look," I said, feeling kind of embarrassed. "You didn't need to do that, Four Trey."

"Why not? A man doesn't get to be twenty-one but once in his life."

"But I'm not even sure that I am twenty-one. I think so, but I'm not sure."

"Well, now you can be sure," he said. "I say so, so you can depend on it."

"Anyway, my birthday was last week," I said. "I forgot all about it until just now."

He yawned and leaned back in the grass, making a waving motion for me to be on my way. "Go scoff, Tommy. Have some fun if you can find anything to have it with."

"Thanks," I said. "Thanks a lot, Four Trey."

"Just be sure you meet me out at the camp in the morning. Better make it around five o'clock. We'll have to hire on, and we'll be working up ahead of the ditchers and draglines. Wherever there's hard rock."

"Right," I said. "I'll be there."

He cocked his hat over his eyes and folded his hands on his stomach. Seemingly, he fell asleep at once. And I went on up the creek bed and into town.

Copyright © 1967 by Fawcett Publications, Inc.

Meet the Author

(1906 - 1977) James Meyers Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. He began writing fiction at a very young age, selling his first story to True Detective when he was only fourteen. Thompson eventually wrote twenty-nine novels, all but three of which were published as paperback originals. Thompson also wrote two screenplays (for the Stanley Kubrick films “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory”). An outstanding crime writer, the world of his fiction is rife with violence and corruption. In examining the underbelly of human experience and American society in particular, Thompson’s work at its best is both philosophical and experimental. Several of his novels have been filmed by American and French directors, resulting in classic noir including The Killer Inside Me (1952), After Dark My Sweet (1955), and The Grifters (1963).

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