Sunday, January 14, 2018

On "People Are Already Full" by Gary Lutz (427 words) ***

Here's a short short by Lutz that feels in some ways put together sentence by sentence. In a way, I feel like Lutz's story is about the creation of the story itself, the difficulty of putting one together--it starts with two characters, elaborating on each, pulling itself against space toward them, changing views. Read the piece here at Thee Invisible.

On "Jesus and the Zealots" by S. G. F. Brandon ***

My interest in the zealots finds root in two factors: the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees (and scribes and priests) are the Jewish sects emphasized in the New Testament as being in competition with each--and Jesus--for power; and the fact that some of the things that the apostles say lend one to feel that they might have had certain zealot leanings--namely, they figure that Jesus is going to create kingdom now, raising up Israel to overthrow the Roman governors. The latter gets full play in Brandon's account, which sees the Jesus movement if not actually a zealot movement than at least one with heavy zealot-favoring tendencies.

The issue with this view, however, is that Christians become in league with zealots and thus part of the reason for their persecution and ultimately the destruction of the Jewish-Christian element of the Christian sect. This is made possible in part only because Brandon starts with two premises: (1) As with many historians of religion, he takes a secular view of the scriptures and the events described therein (hence, he explains away anything supernatural, taking these are inaccuracies in the historical account and creating his own suppositions as to the real events); and (2) he accepts the mainstream Christian view that first-century Pauline (i.e., Gentile) Christianity was already distinctive from Jewish Christianity. Without these two premises, which are after all largely accepted, much of his argument loses strength.

Another interesting element in Brandon's account is that he sees the Jewish uprisings predating 70 AD as taking a heavy toll on Roman patience. This is in deep contrast to the view offered by Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem, who believes that the uprisings described by Josephus were largely minor because no one else wrote about them and Josephus himself had an interest in propping up the mightiness of the Jewish people. It is the story of these uprisings (the first half of the book), however, in which Brandon's account excels, showing the effect the zealot ideology had on the Jewish peoples.

Zealots, as Brandon describes them, were peoples--often of the lower priestly classes, if not laymen, who believed that those in Judah who worked with Roman authorities were in fact causing God to turn from Israel. Taking their views from the idea that Phinehas was commended for killing those who served other gods in the Old Testament, zealots saw the key to Judah's strength as being a return to God at all costs. If one simply had the faith to live in strict adherence to God's way and did not compromise by, say, paying taxes to Roman authorities, God would step up and throw off the oppressors for Judah. No doubt, some elements of Christ's teaching mesh with this, as he criticized those in charge and as he commended people for their faith.

It's when Brandon starts drawing his argument toward how the Christians were zealots (or at least closely tied into their views, for even he admits that they were not out-and-out zealots) that his argument starts to weaken, unless of course one accepts the two premises. He makes this argument in large part by reviewing the Gospels in light of zealot sympathies. Taking the often-accepted position that Mark was written first, he argues that Mark, being written for a largely Roman audience in the immediate wake of the destruction of the temple, downplayed the zealot sympathies of Jesus and his followers. Mark didn't want Christians to be viewed as people who agreed with the uprising in Israel. Hence, he clouds certain events so that Jesus is seen as less in tune with rebels. Simon the Zealot, for example, is not outright called "the Zealot" (this name, of course, is played up to the hilt by Brandon--Jesus had a disciple of zealot sympathies--but there is little mention of Matthew the tax collector, that is, one with Roman sympathies). Much is also made of Peter's role in the book--it is much more negative than in the other gospels, according to Brandon, with Peter coming off like a dolt who doesn't fully understand Jesus's world-encompassing work, while the Gentiles are more able to see Christ's divinity, as in the soldier who proclaims that this truly was the son of God at the book's end. As such, Mark's gospel is Pauline in sympathy and orientation. (Nevermind that many scholars see one of Mark's main sources as being Peter himself!)

Matthew and Luke, being written in Brandon's view, some ten or fifteen years later, weren't as in need to hide the zealot tendencies of Jesus and his followers. Now, Jesus is seen as being merely a pacifist--not necessarily one who is inclined toward Gentiles themselves. The pacifism as such allows him to be more Jewish in orientation (Matthew's audience was more Jewish) without making him one sympathetic with the zealot cause. Still, zealotry peaks through in certain clues. For example, Jesus and his disciples are armed (with two swords) when the priests come to arrest him. That a whole group of people had to arrest Jesus suggests to Brandon that he was actually dangerous, and the two swords (largely to fulfill prophecy, the Gospel writers say) is probably a somewhat twisting of reality to make Jesus seem to not be a rebel rouser. His true danger is shown in how he cleans the temple of moneychangers, a job that, as Brandon notes, likely involved more that just one man (he makes a good point that a single man would likely have been arrested--unless there were others participating or, as is more probably, others sympathetic to his views to prevent the police from interfering). Brandon also masterfully twists Jesus's talk about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's into a statement of subterfuge in support of zealot beliefs about not paying taxes to Rome.

In light of these ideas, Brandon points to, it seems unlikely that the Jewish people were responsible for Christ's death as much as the Roman authorities, who saw him as being as dangerous as the Jewish powerholders, who were in sympathy with Rome. The Gospels deliberately obfuscate this point so as to not arouse the ire of Rome against Christians. It is, by the time the Gospels are written, Brandon thus claims, Pauline Christianity that is winning out: a view of Jesus as coming for sin for the whole world rather than a Jesus who comes to redeem solely Israel and that largely by wielding power (either in this life or in some future return).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On "The Lurking Fear" by H. P. Lovecraft (8173 words) *****

One of the stronger Lovecraft stories, this one shows off many of Lovecraft's standard techniques and proclivities. It involves a reporter who goes in search of "the lurking fear." An entire village of townsfolk disappears. The reporter goes with some aids, who als disappear. One night, staying in a house, his partner goes to the window upon seeing something intriguing--when he doesn't speak or turn around, the reporter goes up to him and finds his face has been mauled off. The fear, the reporter comes to believe, might have something to do with a family that once lived in the house, specifically with one man who was murdered. But the truth, as the story unfolds, is something ghastlier than a ghost. Read the story here.

On "Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories" by H. P. Lovecraft **

I first came across Lovecraft as a clerk in a bookstore years ago, though I was not, at that time, tempted to read him. I am not a fan of horror fiction, and the lurid covers of the two books we carried by him did not impress. However, I've come to know him in other ways, through the work of others who read him and were influenced by him, most notably Paul Bowles. But one can also see echoes of his predescessor Poe and a certain echo in the work of Latin America's fantastic realists. There is a gothicism and faux intellectualism that appeals in a way, as well as a certain ghost-tale folksiness. What does not appeal, for me, is his tendency to play up the weirdness, naming places and people by ancient made-up names, making it all not just surreal but clearly a world of fantasy so that the horror is of little true horror, even as he tells us how scary and horrifying everything is.

Year ago, I finally read a story of Lovecraft's online, a submarine adventure that proved actually really good--I was hoping for more with this book. Alas, it was not to be. The stories were strange but rarely carried much weight beyond that.

The first two tales in this collection introduce readers to Lovecraft's world. They are essentially histories, explanations of peoples and places, more than actual tales. It's with "The Terrible Old Man" that we begin to see actual plotlines and characters.

Many of the stories center on men coming face-to-face with what I might call "the eternal"--be it death or some spiritual force beyond the ability of our physical minds to fathom. This encounter generally results in a man's disappearance--and for those left behind a token of some sort of transformation that has occurred. For Lovecraft, then, this is what horror is: an encounter with the awesome that we should not behold. This doesn't necessarily equate to fear on the part of the reader (in fact, it rarely does) but rather fascination. Such is the case in a story such as "Hypnos," which recounts two men facing their own nightmares. The survivor of the tale finds that his friend is turned into some kind of statuette, one that others think the narrator himself has carved. If one is pulled along by the story it is by the descriptions not so much by suspense of what will happen.

The collection begins to draw to a close with a set of stories about one Randolph Carter, who descends into the land of dreams to search for, once again, "the eternal"--in this case the old ones/gods and the sunset city. The longest of these tales is more of a novella than a short story, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Here, as in many of the stories, familiar scenes and characters from other stories materialize. We visit, multiple times, Ulthar, which has become a land peopled by cats. All of this is in pursuit of the aforesaid sunset city. While a quest might make for good reading--I was reminded quite a bit of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings--here, the work plays out more like a medieval romance. The character undergoes various trials and performs various exploits among ghouls and other grotesque creatures, but the work seems more episodic than one with a culminating plot. In the end, the character finds that what he seeks is actually the landscape of his childhood.

And that's where the next story takes us--to Carter's childhood. Or rather, it is the story of Carter's disappearance as an older man, with a flashback to a time when he discovered "The Silver Key" that allows him to venture into this dream world. The next story, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," focuses in part on the search for Carter and in part on Carter's adventures once he walks into the land of the silver key, reminiscent of the Kadath story explained above.

The title story of the collection involves a haunted house of sorts--a place wherein the lead character has bad dreams each night, dreams that he slowly comes to realize are in fact a reality of sorts. Too late, however, for he eventually succumbs to the evil. The house is later torn down. The last story in the collection, "The Shadow out of Time," focuses on a man who has amnesia for a few years, taking on the life of another, but who discovers that his body was actually taken over by another for a time, as their is an ancient race that lives on in and through others as it travels across space/time.

The macabre and strange, fanciful elements mixed with seeming historical detail place Lovecraft's New England work in the realm of Nathaniel Hawthorne, while his tone often makes him seem reminiscent of Poe. Both earlier writers have much to recommend them, but both also tend to be less than satisfying on some levels for modern readers, or at least this modern reader. I could say the same of Lovecraft's work.

Monday, January 1, 2018

On "Better to Lose an Eye" by Jamie Quatro (4192 words) ****

Quatro is often at her best with stories involving religion. "Better to Lose an Eye" takes a rather standard look at hypocrisy among Christians, but what is not standard is the point of view. Lindsey's mother's boyfriend shot her mom, leaving her a quadriplegic with a tracheotomy. Now Lindsey has been invited to a pool party, and she's too embarrassed to go with her mom in tow, especially knowing all the questions she's going to be asked. But grandma insists. It's hard not to feel for a girl in this situation--or for a mom. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "Nectar in a Sieve" by Kamala Markandaya ****

I needed a short, small book to read during travels recently and picked this book of my wife's off the shelf. In most ways a sad work, the book is a narrative probably equivalent to the lives of many people in this world and a great reminder of the blessings we have here in the first world.

The narrator is one of the later daughters of a family in India. As such, she has little in the way of a dowry, so although her upbringing allowed her to learn to read, she ends up marrying a peasant rice farmer--a man who rents the land that he farms.

As she ages, she learns better how to support her husband. She makes friends among the villagers. She has a daughter. She has trouble having more children and visits a doctor, who helps her to have several sons. The family struggles through good times and bad, living off the land, living in a hut the father built, dealing with heavy rains and no rains. Once in a while, they get a treat, like some extra spices for their food, their bowl of rice. A tannery moves into the village, and lives begin to change.

Some of the sons get involved with the labor movement. One gets killed. The daughter, in order to support the youngest child, goes into prostitution. None of the sons go into peasant farming. Some go work for the tannery; some go to work for the medical field. They may or may not be bettering themselves, as the pay is always low, basically subsistence.

If this were an American dream story, hard work would pay off. But this is not. This is third world. A life on the farm leads not to the dream of buying the land but to being kicked off the land as it is sold and having nowhere to go but to one's poor children or to the beggar house.

The language of the book is simple. It reads like what one would expect from a woman living in poor circumstances. One reason for this is likely also the woman's naivete and trustingness. Her husband can have an affair, and she figures it fair because she had trouble bearing sons. Her neighbor can demand food, and she gives it, though she can ill afford it. She leaves her belongings behind in the middle of a city in order to get a meal for herself and her husband and finds them gone when she returns.

Friday, December 29, 2017

On "A Decent Life" by Peter Meinke (4047 words) *****

This great story from one of Meinke's collections recounts the life of a man who is discovered to be having an affair. The issue: He lives in a totalitarian society, and his wife is the one who reports him. As such, the government's ultimate control of the two lovers means that they can be compelled toward actions that they would not otherwise contemplate, enough that choices about life are altered forever. Read the story here at VQR.

On "The Buffalo Creek Mining Disaster" by Gerald M. Stern ****

Although this book will give you a summary of this ecological disaster, but it is less about the disaster itself and more about the litigation that would follow it. As such, it's a great book for those interested in the process of lawyering. As a book about ecology, it's not as engaging. What the book did do was remind me to a large extent why I dislike our court system so much.

The book is written from the point of view of the litigater who would bring suit on behalf of about six hundred people affected by the disaster. As one discovers, both sides are inherently interested in getting as much as they can (or giving as little as they can). The people affected by the disaster, indeed the problems that become inherent in the disaster, seem to fall into the background, even if the litigater's intent is both to make the disaster painful enough that the mining company responsible will take more careful actions in the future and to get better compensation for the people involved.

In the end, who makes the money? Who is hurt?

The disaster is the result of some poorly built slag dams that hold refuse from the mining process and hold back a river. Below these dams are several small communities. After a heavy rainfall, the dams give way and many watch their homes and families wash away. Over one hundred die.

The mining company offers people about $4,000 dollars in compensation to each family affected by the loss of a home. This is the early 1970s, so that's more like $24,000 in today's terms. This is rural West Virginia, but that's still not enough really to pay for the home, let alone the deaths caused by the disaster. That should be enough to make one angry.

The mining company claims what happened was an act of God, an accident, something out of its control. Stern shows the detective work involved in trying to find evidence that the company has been reckless, a point of importance if he is to get as much compensation for his clients as he wants. He eventually shows that the company knew of the problems with the dams, which the company itself refuses to call dams so as to prevent itself from being liable. Likewise, the company claims it can't be responsible, since it's just a holding company for the actual company responsible, another tactic to get off the hook for the disaster.

This is what's so disgusting to me about the whole process. The company does its utmost to avoid paying out fair compensation to those affected by using various legal maneuvers, all to preserve profit. At the same time, there's another part of me that has a hard time believing that the company (or at least a number of the people involved) is that cold hearted. Would it deliberately create weak dams? Compensation may be weak, but too generous a compensation would destroy the company completely.

I was reminded of a film about a small investment company that was mostly obliterated in the 9/11 attack. The president of the company, who'd lost his own brother in the attack, promised to keep paying families the salaries of the dead workers; in short order, however, he realized that he couldn't afford to do so, and cut the families off much earlier than expected. People were angry about his greed. But if the company was to survive, he had to stop compensation. Either way the victims lose out. Sometimes, there's greed, and sometimes there's making ends meet in order to keep people working who are still able to work.

Stern eventually gets about $13,000 in compensation for his clients, or about $81,000 in today's dollars, which might cover a house in the area. He does so by asking for about five times that much and then settling for the smaller sum. He does so by claiming psychological trauma (what would become known as PTSD) for his victims, even those away at the time of the disaster. From that $13,000, people have to pay legal fees of about $4000, leaving them with just roughly twice what the company was going to shell out anyway. They're moderately better off.

But who's much better off are the lawyers on both sides, who make essentially about $75 an hour on the deal (forty thousand hours of work for the litigater). Such a case provides lots of work--granted, work that Stern and his company would not have ever gotten paid for unless the case was won, since they were working pro bono. That's the sad part to me, that if the company had been a bit more generous and sympathetic to begin with, and if a lawsuit could have been avoided, the victims would have been much better off and the company too. Instead, third-party lawyers cost both parties a huge chunk of dough.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

On “The Man from Allston Electric” by Daphne Kalotay (4855 words) ***

"The Man from Allston Electric" deals with longing much like many of Kalotay's other stories do. This time, the longing is in the form of an electrician who comes to check on why an outlet isn't working. Rhea thinks of how much she misses her boyfriend--and has missed out on so many other chances for love. Read the story here at Agni.

On "The Killer inside Me" by Jim Thompson *****

This was the first work I read by Jim Thompson, around a decade ago now. I read it in conjunction with a number of other crime novels. I was impressed in part because, well, I'd known of Thompson for some time, but in the midst of other classic crime novels, it did not stick out perhaps as much as it would have in another type of list, such as this one. I still rated it my second-favorite on that list. Now, having reread my two favorites from that list, I can say that this one was actually better on a second read--and rightfully stands as perhaps Thompson's masterpiece.

It has much in common with Pop. 1280, which I'd recently read--both are about killer sheriffs. But where that one plays things much more for laughs, this one is a bit more serious. That sheriff is over-the-top in acting dumb, and he doesn't let readers in on it: we have to discover such for ourselves. But in this book, the sheriff, Lou Ford, pretty clearly to us readers reveals his cards early on: that he's putting on an act. In a way, I think that works better.

Ford suffers from, he says, "the sickness." There are, I suppose, some psychological dimensions going back to his childhood, not wholly interesting or convincing. What's more interesting is to watch how one action spirals into the set that follows, one murder becomes many more to cover it up.

The work proves suspenseful as one watches Ford attempt to cover each crime. Finally, as the murders mount up, one's feelings for the victims begin to come to the fore. It's not so much that one hates Ford--he becomes more and more pitiful--but one hates what he does to others.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On "Susceptibility" by Gary Lutz (95 words) ***

This strange piece is more like the suggestion of a story than an actual story. Lutz hints at something between two characters by giving us a setup and then failing to deliver the story itself. We are left to imagine. Read the story here at Anarchy Is Hyperbole.

On "Hell of a Woman" by Jim Thompson ****

If one can get past the absurd premise near the beginning of this novel, the rest of it is a great read, especially as one nears the end. It's a tale like The Grifters, full of one upmanships and odd twists.

Dolly Dillon is a traveling salesman for the Pay-E-Zee stores, one who borrows from his accounts and is about to get caught. His wife and he fight constantly. Life, essentially, stinks.

One day he goes to visit a client who owes him money and finds, instead, an old lady willing to buy from him, but she won't pay in cash: she'll pay, instead, with her niece--prostitution. Dolly goes for it, and here's the part that's a bit unbelievable: the niece falls for him (in part because he promises to help her rather than sleeping with her--not that he actually intends to go through on his promise).

But Dolly's luck turns when his boss Staples discovers how much he's been shorting accounts. He's fired. His wife runs off. But Mona, the girl he promised to help, bails him out and lets him in on a little secret: her aunt is loaded.

Scheming to get the money and keep it takes up the rest of the book, as we watch Dillon slowly crack apart.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On "Summer 1984" by Greg Jackson (5744 words) ***

"Summer 1984" is a story about creating a story, but it's really the story inside it. The story as a whole is typical of the later stories in the Jackson's collection, which in some sense are about the creation process. The story here is about Michaela, a woman whose name may have been changed, and about a set of event that may have been changed as well. Autobiography mixes with fiction to the extent that we have no clue as to what is real and what imagined. Read the story here at Vice.

On "Savage Art" by Robert Pulito *****

This definitive biography of the writer Jim Thompson starts with a short assessment of his work, of what makes it so powerful, so different from other crime fiction--namely, that Thompson subverted the normal means of telling crime stories by taking their cliches to the extreme. He found an audience later probably because his rather nihilistic portraits worked better for readers of the late twentieth century than for the early. We get crooks with no saving graces--and cops who are crooks. And yet, disturbing as the portraits are, we do sometimes feel with them.

Next Pulito delves into Thompson's familial background--some Native American and the rest going back to the early days of the United States, migrating over the generations from east to west. Thompson himself was the son of a sheriff, born atop the city jail. He grew up for much of his youth in Oklahoma, but his father had good times and bad times financially. A big spender, unable to save, he provided a home that was feast or famine. During the famine times, as he traipsed off to find a better life, his wife would often go to live with relatives in Nebraska, and hence, that too became a home for the young Jim.

Finally, Thompson's dad hit it big for a while in the oil trade, and the family moved to Fort Worth. There, however, fortunes eventually sank, and Thompson went to work as a bellhop, where many of his experiences led to events recounted in his novels. Here, he learned the grift; he served as the getter and giver of drugs, hookers, alcohol, and other things bellhops were often looked to for. Meanwhile, he went to high school, all the while working eight hours a night, doping and especially drinking and smoking to stay alert. Eventually, by age nineteen, still in school, it led to a breakdown.

Thompson's relationship with his dad was not a good one. Dad was a mover, a worker. Thompson was quiet and big on books--writing was not real work in Dad's view. Dad had little respect for Jim. And Jim lacked respect for the dad who left the family by turns and spent out the family fortune whenever it come to be. During his time as bellhop, Thompson saved $1100, which he'd planned to use to support the family after he got out of the hospital and was unable to work for a while--his father stole it, investing it in another get rich scheme that went nowhere. The family suffered.

Thompson spent a couple of years after that in the oil fields, working various jobs. These adventures would become part of his writing later. His mom even came down and joined him, helping to set up a restaurant that quickly went nowhere. Eventually, Jim headed to college, in his mid- to late twenties. There, he majored in agricultural journalism, doing well in the writing and English classes and abominably in just about everything else. He met a lot of other writers, however.

During this time, he began to court the sister of his brother-in-law. The father of the girl really liked him, but the mother not so much. Hence, when the father died, the mother did her utmost to break them up. The girl married someone else, and Thomposon went into a spate of depression, broken up eventually by a blind date arranged by that brother-in-law. The woman he eventually married also had a family that didn't much care for him, and in this case, Thompson's family didn't much care for her. The issue seemed to be one of class--these women were from better-off families, and Thompson would not be able to provide the kind of living these women were accustomed to (or, in the case of the first gal, needed, as she was semi-invalid from an accident she'd had as a young girl). Nevertheless, Thompson and his girlfriend eloped, then lived apart thereafter for a few months, eventually being caught, as the wife came to visit Thompson alone at various times. During this time, Thompson worked and went to college, keeping a schedule much like he had in high school (only now his father was in the throes of whatw as probably Alzheimer's and needed lots of care). But as the Depression years came on strong, even the work dried up.

Jim tried his hand at writing--any he could scrounge up. He sold a fair number of pieces to newspapers and crime journals, often under other names. But the work was not consistent. He tried to get jobs editing for newspapers, and finally one of these attempts led to a job with the Oklahoma WPA. After being hired on by a man who would become a good friend, Bill Cunningham, Jim would work on a guide for the state. He'd also become involved with the Communist Party, an involvement that would lead to a schism between different people involved with the WPA. This would eventually oust Cunningham as head of the Oklahoma division, and Thompson would take his place. Among writers Thompson would work with was Louis L'Amour.

Thompson's writing at this time consisted still of various pieces for crime magazines under pseudonyms, folk stories gathered for the WPA, and Depression-era proletarian-type stories. One of the latter would garner enough attention to land Thompson a book deal with Viking, but though he completed the novel (sending it in in installments), it would never be published, in part because it would lack cohesiveness.

Eventually, Thompson's communist leadings (combined with, ironically, a milktoast labor history that others commissioned Thompson's agency to write that Thompson actually didn't want to do) would lead to his dismissal from the WPA. The state guide Thompson has worked so hard on would sit for nine months until another head was appointed and the agency got back to work; that writer would then take the bulk of the credit for editing of the guide. Thompson meanwhile came up with a book idea for which he got sponsorship and off of which he lived for a year. The book was a series of stories/interviews with various laborers; it, too, would lack cohesiveness, straddling a line between nonfiction, which it was supposed to be, and fiction. It would never be published.

After this came a stint in San Diego. The expectation was that Thompson might scrounge up some work in screenwriting, but nothing materialized. After some dead-end jobs and a few Thompson was good at but had little enthusiasm for, Thompson sent his family back to Nebraska and headed off to New York, where many of his labor and writing friends were now residing. The idea was that there was a job there waiting for him, but it was gone by the time he got there. Instead, Thompson tried to sell his work again, visiting various publishers. Eventually, he got a publisher to take him up on his pledge to write a novel in ten days if they'd lend him a typewriter.

The work, completed in about five weeks, was his first published novel, Now and on Earth. It was heavily autobiographical and still focused quite a bit on labor issues. (In fact, in his personal life, Thompson was moving away from the communist leanings he had had, wanting to write something different, something that would both sell and say something, something grittier and less idealized.) Underneath the novel's characterizations were hints of the crime novel protagonists to come. It received decent reviews but didn't sell very well.

Old WPA friends in New York helped Thompson find a home for his next book, Heed the Thunder, which was a kind of epic Okie historical novel, written under a similar deal as the first. Meanwhile, Thompson had written, and rewritten, a masterpiece called The Unholy Grail. Eventually, it (the eighth draft) would be published as Nothing More than Murder, but not before he had to take more newspaper writing gigs in San Diego and Los Angeles. His firing from the latter gig happened as he finally sold said novel--and received, for once, the critical and popular attention he'd needed to become a novelist.

Strangely, the success of the book, however, didn't lead to more opportunities in terms of book publishing. Two subsequent novels, The Recoil and The Golden Gizmo, went unsold. Thompson took day jobs again. And then, his agent came upon Lion Books. It was a magazine publisher looking for paperback originals to sell into newstands. Thompson went to work writing books for them. The relationship would lead to more than half his career output, as he managed to writing something like fourteen books in the next five years. The success also kept him from drinking as prolifically or uncontrollably as he had--what often led to him losing his day jobs.

The first of these books was The Killer Inside Me. Thompson was handed a plot and then told to write it. But the plot was about a New York City cop who kills a woman. Thompson changed the setting to small-town Texas, the cop to a psycho, the woman to women. The publisher didn't care--when the editors saw the first draft of the first half, they knew Thompson knew what he was doing. Other books followed, with such speed that it's impossible really to know what was written when. Some books were still coming out years later. Pulito opts to put the books into categories in summarizing them: first-person psychos, multiple narrators, third-person novels, autobiographies, and cul-de-sacs. The latter are the handful of dead ends, dunces, bad books. Note to self: I need to read Savage Night, Nowhere Man, A Swell-Looking Babe, The Criminal, and The Kill-Off, as well as the later book The Getaway and the earlier Nothing More than Murder.

And then, the editor at Lion Books left and the magazine company was sold, and Lion Books closed. Thompson, essentially, was out of a job. He went back to drinking heavily. Other crime writers got new publishers; somehow, Thompson's agent could not find him a home, despite the fact that Thompson generally got good reviews and sold about 250,000 copies per title. No reason can be determined, but Thompson thought it was because his novels were so violent. He attempted to pull back, writing some clunkers like The Expensive Sky and The Concrete Pasture. But mostly he just drank, sold short pieces, and worked, for short spans, day jobs--one copyediting at a newspaper.

Along came Stanley Kubrick. A fan of Thompson's, Kubrick was a budding filmmaker whose first film lacked a decent script. He hired Thompson to write (the dialogue) for the second screenplay, an adaptation of a crime novel. The film became The Killing and got rave reviews. Thompson was livid, however, about the screenwriting credit, which Kubrick took for himself, dropping Thompson down as merely the dialogue writer.

Thompson insisted, if he was to write for Kubrick again, he be credited fully. And so it was, when he came on to writing Paths of Glory, for five hundred dollars a week. The degree to which the final screenplay reflects anything he wrote, however, is up for debate. The first draft was overhauled twice, and the writer of the rewrites claims nothing was left of Thompson's work, but Pulito's examination of the scripts suggests that maybe half of Thompson's dialogue and many of the scenes stuck. Either way, Thompson's name is on the byline--as the third writer. After this, however, Kubrick moved on--he didn't think Thompson appropriate for adapting Lolita or other non-crime faire.

About this time, Thompson managed to sell another novel--not one of the clunkers written years before but something new: a revisit with Sheriff Ford: Wild Town. Neither a prequel or sequel to The Killer inside Me, the book is sort of an alternate universe with many of the same characters from the previous book. The book sold to NAL. But editors never gave Thompson the kind of freedom he'd had at Lion. They suggested he start up a detective series, with the same characters--for example, Lou Ford. Or they wanted endings that were "moral," wherein the book managed to show that crime didn't pay. With such shackles, Thompson could not flourish.

Thompson took up writing occasionally for television, but there the shackles were even greater. He did not do well writing for committee. In time, screenplay work dried up, since he was not fast and not able, often, to stick to plans. Pulp magazine publishing also dried up, since television largely replaced it.

Meanwhile, he sold a book called The Getaway, which he had to assure the publisher would end in a "moral" way. When it ended not to the publisher's liking, he stuck to his guns, unwilling to change it to something more realistic.

Thompson was also hired to write a novel/screenplay called Cloudburst, but as he often did, he veered way off the plan for the work. The book ended up being another Lou Ford alternate universe (though the protagonist's name would be changed to Tom Lord to avoid rights issues), and there would be no screenplay. In time, he was able to wrest control of the project from the filmmaker and publish the book as The Transgressors.

Also published during this time was The Grifters and Pop. 1280, but these works would be the last to show off Thompson's powers. After this, his work, when he could sell it, would descend into nostalgia and/or needlessly lurid sex and violence, as in Texas by the Tail, South of Heaven, and King Blood, the latter of which would be pulled by the publisher before seeing publication in the United States and would not appear until after his death. His last book, published as Child of Rage would be similarly tainted, as if, as Pulito claims, Thompson was struggling still to shock in a culture that was now more sexually liberated.

Still other work involved writing novelizations of films and televisions shows, which he did a few of for standard fees.

Drinking during this time took its toll also, and Thompson ended up in the hospital and near death several times. Told to stop drinking and smoking, he'd resume both soon after leaving the hospital each time. Poverty, too, was a problem, since hospital bills stacked up and he wasn't selling much work. He resented the fact that he was not better known and that his work was not more fully accepted. Most was out of print, and when he did manage to sell a book, it was for the same sum as he'd made for years, unlike other big pulp writers who seemed to be making more for each publication.

Still, there was interest in his work for film adaptation. Several novels would be optioned at various times. Thompson didn't own copies of most of his books, so he had to scrounge them up from a used book store or send photocopies, when producers asked to see and consider his work. A big break came with the sale of The Getaway. Thompson wrote the first two drafts of the screenplay, but in the end, someone else took over the project and he ended up with no credit--but a nice paycheck (though not as nice as he would have gotten writing the screenplay). The book in the film became merely an action flick with a happy ending--not a tolerably great adaptation, but still well grossing for the year.

Struggling still to write, Thompson would face multiple strokes until he could barely talk. Eventually, tired and knowing he could write no longer, he starved himself to death.

Through it all, his wife Alberta stuck with him and he with her. He complained about her a lot, but when asked why he wouldn't divorce her, he said that he could never do that to her. (Given his drinking, it's a wonder she didn't divorce him.) He was the one to cook each night, but otherwise, it appears she took care of managing their life. When she had a heart attack, he was as devoted at her bedside as she had been with him through his various ailments. It was love.


The ending to this life seems to come quickly when it finally comes--he's a man who should have died years earlier, one gets the feeling. The real joy of the read for me involved Thompson's communist sympathizer days and the ushering in of his midlife success. The dreariness of life thereafter made the book a rather sad slog in its last hundred pages or so, but such, one might say, is life--most especially Thompson's.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On "SMTWTFS" by Gary Lutz (1318 words) ***

Like the days of the week, this tale rehearses for us the tedious and unsustained life of a man who bounces from one relationship to another, or more often one encounter to another, none of them making much of an impact on him other than the general meaninglessness of it all. Read the story here are Web del Sol.

On "Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson" edited by Robert Polito and Mihael McCauley ***

Often, there are good reasons certain works are lost or left unpublished, but fame has a way of making such miscellany valuable to others. Such is the case with this collection of Thompson's uncollected shorter work.

Arranged in a rough chronological order, the first section from his 1930s and 1940s writing, includes quite a bit of nonfiction written in a fictional vein. In "The Strange Death of Eugene King," Thompson takes on the voice of a transient looking to solve the murder of another transient, a technique popular in thriller magazines of the era apparently. "Oil Field Vignettes" and "Thieves of the Field" both provide first-hand insights into the oil industry that I'd likely never have thought much about otherwise. The first is mostly character sketches of oil workers--one who likes complete silence, one who is scared of drilling, and one who is constantly marrying bad women who take advantage of him and leave him. There's something of a folk tale quality to these bits, as in the stories told in "Thieves," where Thompson ruminates on how pipe can be (and is) stolen and sold. "Snake Magee's Rotary Boiler" is a tall tale about a blown-up boiler that sends a man clear back to bed.

The True Detective pieces show how Thompson became the writer he did. There's a quality of the unknown, as is typical of mystery in each of the true crime pieces, a mystery with a twist usually at the end. "Ditch of Doom" explores the life of an insane man who murders his wife--or is it a planned murder for his former wife? "Oklahoma's Conspiring Lovers" follows the unfortunate story of a man beat up by a horse--who in fact is not beat up by said horse. "Illicit Lovers and the Walking Corpse" tries to figure out how a man's wife survives being accidentally killed by the man--and just how many wives the man has.

"A Penny in the Dust" is an unfinished novel from the period. Seemingly autobiographical in its first passages, it lacks for polish, but the ickiness typical of Thompsom becomes apparent in the final scene provided.

"Character at Iraan" recounts life among oil workers between jobs, as they sleep in a cheap hotel, gamble, and drink. Although published in Prairie Schooner, the piece does not seem to fulfill its literary pretensions.

The second section focuses on Thompson's writings during the 1940s and 1950s, which would have included the time of his most productive output. "Death Missed a Beat" is a straight story about a man who in an effort to get to work on time the next day picks up a hitchhiker to drive him and ends up the object of a murder. "Murder Came on the Mayflower" is a short account of an early colonial murder. "Exactly What Happened" plays to a weird twist in a story in which a man attempts to rob his boss by pretending to be a coworker. "The Threesome in Four-C" is an account of a man who has gone insane because of his conscience. "The Dark Stair" is the basis for Thompson's book No More Than Murder; a true story, the mystery hinges on the contents of a movie. "Forever After" revolves around a woman who, tired of her marriage, plots the murder of her husband via her lover but who, as in "Exactly What Happened," finds the situation reversed on her. "John Stink" is about a Native American whose tribe takes him for dead, so much so that when he finds his way out of the shallow grave they take him for a ghost they must ignore so that he'll go away. "Blood from a Turnip" centers on a watch that hustlers attempt to turn for a profit.

"The Cellini Chalice," one of the longest stories in this section, shows Thompson at his top form, as he is in his better novels. The story centers on a hustler named Mitch. He cons a chalice off a woman who thinks him a vagrant in need, a chalice that is worth much more than she knows. Alas, Mitch isn't an antiques expert, so he thinks he fares well getting a thousand dollars for it but is disappointed when he finds out it's worth at least fifteen times that. Mitch learns that there's another chalice like it and aims to get it with the woman's help. What he doesn't know is that the woman is in on the con--of him. Many pages later, Mitch finds himself in some extenuating circumstances that require him to use all the street smarts he has to extricate himself from.

"The Frightening Frammis" picks up where the previous story left off, once again following Mitch on his efforts to con people out of cash. Having been the victim of a recent swindle, Mitch feels down on his luck, but he soon falls into an opportunity to earn fifty thousand dollars. This story doesn't have the same weight as the previous. The circumstances that lead to Mitch's opportunity seem too haphazard: he's hitchhiking, a couple picks him up, the man dies, and Mitch just happens to look like him, and there just happens to be fifty thousand in the car, and so on. Mitch's wife seems too forgiving, after all that he's put her through in both this story and the last. As such, the plot twists overpower the sense of characterization, and the story loses punch, which is a reason I have tended not to care as much for genre fiction in the past.

The same point could be used to denote why "Pay as You Exit" and "The Flaw in the System" are disappointing. The first involves a hitchhiker who aims to rip off the woman he manages to stop by flattening her tire, only to find out that she might well be just as dangerous as he is. The second involves people at a company who are conned.

"An Alcoholic Looks at Himself" seems a bit disorganized, but it is a sad, autobiographical portrait of Thompson as a drinker, a man who has squandered chunks of his life and talent in an effort to get the next bit of the liquid elixir. I say disorganized, but it is in chronological order. It's just that, being "real life," there doesn't seem much in the way of an arc or growth--it's just random discussion of drinking, stopping, then drinking again.

"The Tomcat That Was Treetop Tall" is a crime story about a man who decides to rip off a couple in a bar and the man who decides to stop him. Here, the story's violence seems as if it is on the page for thrills rather than for a purpose inherent to the story.

We then move to the last two decades of Thompson's life and writing. The middle of the book seems the strongest part; by this era, Thompson's work has become something of a parody of itself. "A Horse in the Baby's Bathtub" revolves around an incest story. A young man who is, in his mind, clever and smart, takes an interest in his father's new bride, his stepmom. He kills off dad and takes up with her, but his interest in her is, in part, one of contempt. In the end, he opts to do some violence to the family next door, who has lost a child--and that's where one learns the meaning of the tale's title.

"The Red Kitten" is the start of a longer work--a promising start. A man marries a woman, but with an understanding that the inheritance the two of them will get requires them to stay married. The will is set up in such a way that it essentially forces the two to despise one another but stay married--or find some way to knock the other off. Alas, the piece ends there.

"The Slave Girl in the Cellar" is a summary of a true crime story, a case of modern slavery. The piece is interesting for the case itself.

"Sunrise at Midnight" is a strange piece, a piece that seems in many ways like male wish fulfillment. The first section focuses on a man married to a stripper who is forced into her profession by a crooked cop. But just as the husband begins to build a plan for taking care of matters, the story backtracks to that same man taking an interest in helping out a much-younger woman in a dead-end job. After he buys her new clothes and sets her up rather well, she insists on going to bed with him against his will and then they get married. The man loses his job as a reporter and thus fall the events that force his wife into stripping--and the man into seeking revenge. Like so many of the pieces in this last section, this one seems unfinished.

I didn't much care for "Hell" from Ironside, the one published piece in the last section, a lyrical exploration of killing and crime.

"This World, Then the Fireworks" closes off the collection and might be the most finished of those works falling in the last section. Full of familiar Thompson tropes, the piece seems a bit over the top. It involves a set of twins who witness their father killing a cop who discovers said father cheating with the cop's wife. The wife commits suicide, the dad goes to jail, and the kids grow up to be troubled. They get into the grift, but their main desire is somehow to avenge or to understand their father's deed. And so goes the tale as the male twin opts to get involved with a female cop.

The book made me feel like Jim Thompson's best material was long form and mostly during the period for which he is most famous, when he wrote so many books in such short order. I wouldn't have bothered with the text were it not one of the few available to me to read on my Jim Thompson list. This is a collection, I'd say, largely for Thompson scholars, who can used it to see how his writing developed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On “Sunshine Cleaners” by Daphne Kalotay (5498 words) ***

"Sunshine Cleaners" involves Russian immigrants who work in (but not for) a laundry facility, sewing up old clothes. Sergei wonders when he'll score big, whether he'll meet a woman, whether he'll make some real money. Each day a gal comes in and blames him for not fixing a machine that steals her money--"not my machine," he says. Read the story here at Fifty-Two Stories or listen to it here at the Drum.


On "Pop. 1280" by Jim Thompson ****

What works so well in this novel is Thompson's corn-pone southern folksy voice. One would think that Thompson came from the South, was born there, but he's a Los Angelino, though he bumped around a bit, I'm sure. And he probably got good at mimicking ideas about the South, cliches and such. And this novel plays into that well.

The text revolves around the small-county sheriff of Potts, population 1,280. He's a goof, an idiot, or so it seems at the start of the book. One wonders, How is it that this guy is carrying on not one but two affairs? But then, something becomes clear: He's no goof. He's very clever, and he plays the goof for full benefits. And he's also incredibly sinister and evil and corrupt.

But so is just about everyone in town. In fact, in some scenes, Nick, the sheriff, comes out looking like an advocate for civil rights compared with those around him--but mostly when it benefits himself. Meanwhile, he manipulates those in town by playing to their worst instincts. If someone catches you in a lie, accuse the person of adultery or arson. If that doesn't work, just denote that you won't accuse ever the person, which is sure to get the rumor mill spiraling with questions and innuendos.

One has to wonder how happy the sheriff can be. He's in a constant fix, playing one crime against another to stay ahead of his pursuers. It seems like a stressful life.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On "Contractions" by Gary Lutz (3139 words) ****

"Contractions" starts promising enough, with an account of a kid who decides to reveal all of her parents' secrets from before marriage. In a sense, the story then revolves around marriage and relationships, the various ones this girl grows up to have, all of them full of their own secrets and sadnesses and smells. Read the story here at Web del Sol.

On "After Dark, My Sweet" by Jim Thompson ****

This is the novel that started my interest in Thompson--but mostly because of the movie, or rather, the movie review. Siskel and Ebert loved it; I have yet to see it, some two decades later. But I've wanted to read the book and/or see the movie ever since, and now I have.

Alas, with most things built up so much in one's head for so long, I was a bit disappointed. The characters in this novel seemed half-drawn, and while we might forgive that because the main character is supposedly insane, I still didn't quite understand how the lead was so drawn to the woman who is his potential undoing.

She's sort of pretty, I guess, after the main character thinks on her a while, but she's a drunkard and mostly cruel. She in turn introduces the lead to Bud, a friend, who wants him to take part in a kidnapping and ransom. As in other novels, there is a chance at redemption, in this case via a doctor who tries to help the main character. But he is drawn too much to the woman.

But what exactly is the woman's game? Is she with Bud or against him, with the lead or against him? The main character's paranoia leaves us uncertain until the end whether she is taking advantage of him or truly in love. But then, much isn't as it seems in this book, as the last chapters demonstrate.