Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jim Thompson, "Roughneck" (1954).

Jim Thompson was an interesting figure in American literature. He was primarily known as an artist of hard-boiled crime fiction. During his lifetime he wrote more than thirty novels, many of which were published by pulp fiction publishers. Although he only received a little critical attention during his lifetime, he has subsequently been lauded as one of the best writers within his genre. His more refined writing incorporated surrealism and unconventional plot devices that elevated his best work to the status of literature. In fact, many contemporary authors and filmmakers have gone public with their appreciation of his output. Robert Redford, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King and the directors Stanley Kubrick, Sam fuller, Stephen Frears and Steven Shainberg are among the many cultural celebrities who are on record as being Jim Thompson fans.

Thompson was born in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1906. His father was a county sheriff who was forced to leave office due to rumors of embezzlement. While his family lived a nomadic existence, Thompson developed a reputation as a hustler at a young age. One of his first jobs was working as a bellhop in a hotel, where he supplemented his income by trading in bootleg liquor during the prohibition era. This time in his life is documented in the entertaining memoir Bad Boy, and was adapted by Shainberg for his 1996 feature Hit Me. His truck with underworld figures and petty criminals left him plenty of material for the stories he was submitting to a variety of true crime magazines.

Later on he would become an oil field laborer, and then the head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project ( a position created as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's depression-era New Deal programs). During World War II he worked at an aircraft factory where he was eventually investigated for a brief flirtation with the Communist Party. Out of this experience came the fodder for his first novel, Now and on Earth (1942). Subsequent works became progressively violent and dark, and Thompson slowly built a following. Eventually though, having become frustrated by his lack of commercial success, he turned to writing television programs and novelizations in Los Angeles. He died of a stroke at the age of 71, his health ravaged by alcoholism.

Roughneck picks up where Bad Boy leaves off. It finds Thompson entering the struggles of young adulthood in the rough economic climate of the 1930's. He got married young, but had difficulties finding work to support his wife and child. His memoir chronicles his desperate search for legitimate employment. It tells of his associations with various shady characters, who lure him into schemes and con games. At one point he gets a job as a strong-arm collector for an installment shop that caters to clients with extremely bad credit. Thompson's deep humanity and affinity for the underdog shine most strongly in this account. In the midst of tramping around the country looking for sustenance, he never abandons his dreams to write great books. Unfortunately his family often pays the cost of his determination.

The stories of Thomspon's hardships are often funny, but contain a hint of deep pathos about the cold, implacable nature of life. His tale of trying to extract a derelict oil pipe from a backwoods site dramatizes the almost epic battle between intention and fate. His attempts to negotiate the bureaucracy of the Works Project Administration and write a history of the unions underscores the often unavoidable futility of honest effort. Even his modest bid for domestic comfort seems doomed to failure. Thompson finally finds himself in the position to buy a house for his clan only to discover the structure infested by bedbugs and centipedes. Despite the essentially bleak outlook and the rather scattered narrative, Roughneck is an illustrative reminder of just how tough it has been (and can yet be) to make it in the USA.

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