Monday, June 09, 2008

Jim Thompson, "Pop. 1280" (1964).

One major advantage of going to the library is that the selection is generally so broad that I can get the best books of any single author that I am interested in. All I have to do is a quick internet search to find out what works are most recommended. This is especially helpful in cases where a writer is prolific and has an uneven output. It's too easy to pick up something just because it's convenient, only to find that it doesn't suit your interests. I had been in the habit of going to Half Priced Books. I'd scan the shelves for books written by someone I'd heard good things about, and grab whatever was available. It was a cheap method of putting together a reading list, but unfortunately the stuff in stock was not often the best representation of the author.

Such was the case with Jim Thompson. I first discovered his work when a friend lent me The Killer Inside Me (1952). Although this title is often listed among his best books, I found it sort of juvenile and cliche. Perhaps I would have felt differently had I read it around the time of its original release. Nevertheless I don't think it held up very well, and I felt justified in ignoring Thompson for awhile. So I hadn't considered returning to his work until I saw a film dramatization of one of his memoirs. I decided to give the source material a try, and was moderately impressed. I thought that maybe I had simply gotten an unsatisfying introduction to Thompson. Recently I compiled a short list of his fiction to track down.

Pop. 1280 introduces the reader to sheriff Nick Corey, who seems like a nice enough guy, if a bit of a rube. His job is to keep tabs on the small population (see title) of Pottsville County, the most modest territory in the (unidentified Southern) state. Although crime in his jurisdiction is minimal, Nick has his hands full. There are two pimps down by the river "sassin' him". He's got to stand for re-election. And he has domestic issues. In order to resolve the first situation, he decides to pay a visit with a neighboring lawman that he considers a friend. Unfortunately Ken Lacey has the tendency to dole out just as much abuse as advice to his "friends". It's hard to understand why Nick suffers him with such patience. Of course all will be revealed in time.

Meanwhile Nick has got to find a way to make an end run around his harpy of a wife (Myra) and her idiot brother (Lenny). Our hero is a bit of a ladies' man, and he's cookin' up a few dishes on the side. One of his regular bedmates is "best friends" with Myra, and has a truculent husband to boot. That needs dealin' with. And then there's Amy, who Nick had planned to marry before he got bamboozled into connubial hell with Myra. Amy is about the only honest character in the whole book, and that quality presents its own set of problems for good ol' Nick. As "aw shucks" as Nick seems, it turns out that he's not nearly as easy going as the town-folks imagine. Hell, that's the very reason he's been able to hold on to his position as long as he has.

At the very core of his being, Nick is a lot different than he appears. His exterior is precisely cultivated to make him appear innocuous. The best way to beat your enemy is to get him to underestimate you, and Nick is an expert at this. This penchant for subtle irony is the source of much dark humor in the book. Thompson brings the reader along at his own Southern-born pace. It takes awhile for you to get your bearings, and only then do you know what you are really looking at. I was genuinely shocked at the depth lurking beneath Nick and his story. Pop. 1280
excellently illustrates why the often overlooked Thompson garnered such admiration from other authors. Like Nick Corey himself, there's a lot more there than one would ever expect.

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