The pulp-noir writer Jim Thompson died on this day in 1977, all of his three dozen books already out of print. “Just you wait,” he told his wife shortly before his death, cautioning her to hang on to his copyrights, “I’ll become famous after I’m dead about ten years.” He wasn’t off by much: in 1990, the movie made from his 1963 novel The Grifters received four Academy Award nominations, and then a handful of other books were turned into films, and today nearly all of Thompson’s work is back in print.
Thompson was one of the most durable and prolific of the midcentury pulp writers, a specialist in dark motives, twisted deeds, and crime novels that, says biographer Robert Polito (Savage Art, 1996), “lanced a boil on the American Dream.” His books have earned him praise as an “existentialist” writer, as well as comparisons to Hammett and Chandler, but they require readers willing to be engaged by a gallery of losers, outcasts, sociopaths, and Oedipals “by turns nursing and picking their wounds” (Polito). Below, for example, is the unsettling self-introduction provided by the weirdo sheriff in The Killer Inside Me:
I’ve loafed streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back and one boot hooked back around the other — hell, you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way — I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people….
As his outcasts sometimes struggle and fail to be better, or just ordinary people, so Thompson struggled to be a mainstream writer. During the Depression he was deeply involved with the Oklahoma branch of the Federal Writers’ Project, where he befriended Woody Guthrie and became determined to write a Grapes of Wrath or a Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the publishers weren’t interested in what he had to say about good guys and hard workers, and Thompson was soon forced into the pulp industry, where editors wanted more books for their “hairy armpit” series and paid by the word. Polito reports that he kept at it, fighting alcoholism and related health issues until he was down to seventy pounds at age seventy and could no longer hold a pen.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.