Home > 1940, 20th Century, American Literature, Highly Recommended, Novel, Thompson Jim > Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson. The billet

Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson. The billet

Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson (1946) French title: Avant l’orage.

That was all there was to life: a gift that was slowly taken away from you. An Indian gift. You started out with a handful of something and ended up with a handful of nothing. The best things were taken away from you last when you needed them worst. When you were at the bottom of the pot, where there was no longer reason for life, then you died. It was probably a good thing.

Heed the Thunder takes us Verdon, Nebraska at the turning of the 20th century in a valley beautifully described by Jim Thompson as mentioned in my previous billet.

The book opens on Mrs Dillon coming back to Verdon with her seven-year old son Bobbie. Her husband in gone but we don’t know how. Did he die? Did he leave her? Mrs Dillon’s maiden name is Edie Fargo and she’s back in her hometown where the Fargo clan is influential. The head of the family is old Lincoln Fargo. He’s married to Pearl, a churchy person, someone who blindly follows her clergyman. Lincoln is a disillusioned old man with not much trust in life or appetite for it anymore. He can be brutal but he’s not that bad. And to live his whole life with his wife mustn’t have been easy.

The Fargos have four children, Edie, Myrtle, Grant and Sherman. The father was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and his sons have inherited names from generals.

Edie is back in town after her marriage collapsed. She has lost her husband, in a literal sense. She doesn’t know where he is. But life goes on and she has a mischievous and clumsy boy to raise. After staying a bit with her parents, she runs a hotel and tries to make a living for her and her son.

Myrtle is married to Alfred Courtland, an Englishman who ended up in Verdon. She’s proud of her husband’s refined accent and loves sipping five-o’clock tea. Her marriage gives her a feeling of superiority even if Courtland has a mediocre job at the local bank owned and run by Philo Barkley, Lincoln’s brother-in-law.

Grant is dressed like a dandy. He used to work for a newspaper in town but lost his job. He’s now living off his parents. He’s idle, he begs for drink money and he’s in serious lust with his cousin Bella Barkley. They have a torrid and illicit affair behind their parents’ back. Bella is beautiful and demanding, she’s the femme fatale of the novel.

Sherman is a farmer married to Josephine. They have six children. Josephine is far from the clichéd farmer’s wife who helps with chores, handles the kids and takes care of the house and of everyone’s stomach with fantastic cooking. No. Josephine is obese, unkind and almost useless in the kitchen.

An engaging crowd, aren’t they? Well, you’re in a novel by Jim Thompson, which means that you are as far from a book by Willa Cather as Little House on the Prairie is from a film by Quentin Tarentino.

We’ll follow the Fargos’ fate in the span of seven years, up til 1914. Heed the Thunder refers to WWI and probably the Great Depression. Thompson shows how all the signs of the changes that will lead to the Great Depression are already there. Sherman is experiencing the changes in agriculture. A salesman from a big firm goes from farm to farm to sell agricultural machines. This is the turning point towards mechanization of agriculture. Sherman buys machines through a credit purchase. He starts feeling obliged to use the machine he’s bought and secure revenues to pay back his loans. He gets credits on his future crop and this forces him to keep cultivating wheat when he would have liked to promote variety to let the land rest. Sherman is the symbol of farmers who enter into a deadly cycle.

Thompson also shows the slow switch from carriages to cars and trucks. A local orphan who was the target of mockeries became a lawyer and a politician. Through his rise, we see the corruption of local politicians who are sold to railroad companies. He will be the one to promote the construction of new roads. In Paul Claudel’s analysis about the Great Depression, he mentions the huge crisis in the railroad industry. A lot of companies are not profitable because they can’t make a good return on investments and they have a hard time improving the efficiency of the service.

Heed the Thunder shows the life of the Fargo family members during seven years. And life is not kind to them. Thompson distances himself from any postcard vision of life in the countryside. None of the Fargos are likeable. They’re rude, stingy and uneducated. Grant is borderline crazy. Sherman does his best but fails as a father and as a farmer. Edie tries to sort herself out but is a bit overwhelmed with Bobbie’s energy. And Myrtle drapes herself is her husband’s aura of higher civilization, until he proves to be as bestial as the others.

Verdon is a closed community, not a close-knit one. It’s a dark novel that only makes you want to go to Verdon for the landscape, certainly not for its human clan. This book resonates with The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus. I’ve read it earlier and my billet will come soon.

Heed the Thunder also describes the interaction between the immigrant communities. The Germans are well appreciated but the people from Eastern Europe are to be avoided. Religion separates the groups and Catholics are not as welcome. The pot has not quite melted to fabricate Americans yet.

Thompson’s style is sumptuous, proving he’s so much more than a banal crime fiction writer. He uses a lot of slang words from the countryside and purposely makes a lot of grammar “mistakes”. It gives a feel of the place, of the time and of the lack of education in this village. It was a bit difficult for me to follow at times but I managed.

Heed the Thunder is different from other books by Jim Thompson like The Killer Inside Me. But the dark side of humanity is there too, just as the stifling atmosphere of rural life. It seems to produce monsters, not rosy-cheeked plump matrons who shower kids and neighbors with cheerfulness and warmth.

Highly recommended.

  1. March 11, 2017 at 1:06 am

    Hi Emma, it sounds like a companion piece to The Grapes of Wrath (1939) but with nastier people!

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    • March 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

      It’s set before the Great Depression and yes the Fargos are, I wouldn’t say nastier, but crazier. Except for Edie, they all have something wrong in their head. It’s the Thompson atmosphere, you’re living with unbalanced people around you and you’re not aware of it.

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      • March 11, 2017 at 8:47 am

        I wonder if I can dig up a copy somewhere….

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      • March 11, 2017 at 8:49 am

        PS My copy of En l’absence des homes by Philippe Besson (which you recommended for my next attempt at reading in French) arrived yesterday from Librarie Colibrio… I shall start reading it as soon as I’ve cleared a few books from my backlog:)

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  2. March 11, 2017 at 3:29 am

    I love the opening quote–it sounds very Thompson

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    • March 11, 2017 at 8:41 am

      It is. It has these characters who seem fine in the surface but are filled with murky thoughts and bubbling with violence.

      Like

  3. March 11, 2017 at 11:17 am

    Well, that sounds like a cheerful read!!! Appealing, despite its grimness, but I am opting for slightly lighter reads at the moment. Still, one to keep an eye out for in the future.

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    • March 11, 2017 at 7:45 pm

      It’s less grim than The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus (or worse, The Passport by Herta Müller)
      It has this Thompson touch of craziness that keeps him away from pessimism. (in French I’d say “misérabilisme”)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. March 11, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    That sounds like a large cast of characters to keep track of ….

    Like

    • March 11, 2017 at 7:46 pm

      It was OK really. Plus, contrary to Russian lit, they are always named the same way, no confusing nicknames to add to the mix.

      Like

  5. March 15, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    I wouldn’t have called his crime fiction banal in any sense (I know that’s not quite what you were saying), but this does sound utterly different to what I’d have expected of Thompson. I’ll check this out. It sounds much better than Tobacco Road, which is much more famous but frankly overrated.

    Recommendation taken!

    Like

    • March 18, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      You’ll like it, Max.
      I don’t think his crime fiction is banal, I meant this one is far from the usual codes of Noir Fiction.

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