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Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson. The billet

March 10, 2017 18 comments

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.

1280 âmes: In search of lost characters from Jim Thompson’s Pop.1280

September 6, 2011 13 comments

1280 âmes by Jean-Bernard Pouy. 2000. Not translated into English. The title means “1280 souls”

Pierre de Gondol owns the smallest book store in Paris, 12m² of over crowed shelves and his literary knowledge seems inversely proportional to the size of his bookshop. His clients are mostly composed of erudites, lunatics of literature who moon over their favourite authors, researching details and original editions. The kind of weirdos who must have had their foreheads hit by an encyclopedia of literature when they were in their crib.

One day, a new customer bursts into the shop and asks Pierre to enquire after the five people who disappeared from the original version of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. Indeed, the mythic book number 1000 in the even more mythical Série Noire collection, ie Thompson’s Pop.1280, was translated into French by Marcel Duhamel and entitled 1275 âmes. Where are the five missing inhabitants? Pierre starts his enquiry in Parisian libraries and flies to America, to Oklahoma to try to discover the real Pottsville and solve the mystery.

Presented like this, it sounds a little dry and slippery as it’s always difficult to write based-on-a-classic books. But Jean-Bernard Pouy isn’t a newcomer in the Noir world (well, at least, in France). He has written over 30 novels, mostly published in the Série Noire Collection and is the creator of Le Poulpe, a character whose adventures are written by different authors. His character, Pierre, as he says, is a fan of Raymonds. Chandler. Carver. Queneau. A nice guy who drinks white wine as his American fellow Noir heroes drink whisky. His girl-friend Iris is a actress-to-be, accepting lousy experimental theatre festivals to make a living. She’s his opposite and a little crazy.

C’est ça, les couples. Moi, j’aimerais écrire comme Joyce ou Gadda et elle, parler comme Micheline Dax.

That’s what couples are about. I would want to write like Joyce or Gadda and she would like to speak like Micheline Dax. (1)

They have an undefined relationship, not living together but always on the razor’s edge. He loves her but sometimes he’s not sure she loves him in return. The side-characters, ie the customers, are funny and original.

I really had huge fun reading this. Coincidence after coincidence, it resonated with my last months’ reading in an incredible way and those who follow this blog will understand why immediately. Pouy has an extraordinary use of the French language. He’s a great admirer of the Oulipo movement and refers to Perec and Queneau every now and then, like here:

J’ai été alors interrompu dans toutes ces périgrinations mentales par l’arrivée intempestive de Serge énervé comme un perecliste ayant enfin trouvé le seul “E” qui paraît-il existe dans La Disparition.

Then Serge interrupted untimely my mental peregrinations. He was as agitated as a Perecist who has eventually found out the only “E” that supposedly exists in La Disparition.

So when one of Pierre’s last literary enquiries was to discover what had become of “the flat couple of Perec, the one in Les Choses, I thought he was winking at me. “Couple plat”, “flat couple”. I wish I had thought of that image myself when I reviewed Les Choses last month. “Flat couple”, it’s even better in English as this couple is flat and their flat is in the centre of the story. Allusions to Proust and Joyce are mixed with onomatopoeic spelling like in Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau. He speaks French like a gourmet has diner in a fine restaurant. He plays with the sounds, spelling New-Yorkais as Nouillorquais, the words and the concepts. (In French slang, a “nouille” is a dummy)

He plays with the codes of genres, mostly Noir and road movies. He plays on the clichés of America for Europeans, just like Thompson creates Pottsville as the archetype of the Southern little town. The French translator, who is also the founder of the legendary Série Noire, wrote that Pottsville is Ploucville, literally Hickville. So we hear of the inevitable long highways, the dreary hotel rooms, the bad food. Look at Pierre leaving his motel room, somewhere in Oklahoma:

J’ai refait mon sac, et comme tous les acteurs de sitcoms dans ce genre de situation, j’ai jeté un dernier coup d’oeil lourd sur la chambre, putain c’est la dernière fois que je viens ici où j’ai été si heureux avec Cindy, et j’ai claqué la porte.

I packed my things, and like all the sitcoms actors in this kind of situation, I threw a last meaningful glance at the room, it’s the God-dang last time I’m coming here where I’ve been so happy with Cindy, and I slammed the door shut.

And to top it off, Pouy knows his Thompson perfectly. He makes correspondences between the original text and the translation, explains Pop. 1280 with biographical elements. It’s a good complement to the reading of Thompson’s novel. He finds a logical explanation to the disappearance of five people between the English and the French version.

As a mirror to the Oulipo, I also discovered the BILIPO, the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières. I didn’t know there was a special library dedicated to crime fiction in Paris. I checked, it really exists and has all kinds of archives about this literature, books of course, but also university essays and magazines.

1280 âmes is definitely a UFO in the literary world, the kind of book you love or hate depending on who you are and when you read it. For me, the timing was perfect, I read it in a row, unable to stop, laughing out loud and learning fascinating literary details. The only flaw lays in the numerous digressions sometimes hilarious and sometimes less successful. I recommend to read it after Pop. 1280 and I understand perfectly that it can be obscure to someone who doesn’t know the book. For me, it was a treat. 


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

August 22, 2011 12 comments

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. 1952. Translated into French as Le démon dans ma peau.

Hello Reader and Cyber visitor whose Google spaceship landed here by mistake,

This post starts with a quiz to be efficient and prevent you from losing your time – Isn’t time a precious thing in our century? Someday Time Bonds will be sold on the commodity stock markets like these rights to pollute. But I’m digressing.

Question 1: Do you know Jim Thompson? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to His Futile Preoccupation and read about Thompson there.

If you read this, that means you know Jim Thompson or you don’t want to take my advice, well, it’s your choice. Question 2: Have you read The Killer Inside Me? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to this review.

Still there? Either you’re a) really stubborn; b) brand new to the Internet and you don’t know how to click on links; c) a reader who knows The Killer Inside Me AND wants to know what I thought about it. (pretty low probability) In any case, welcome on board for a chilling journey in Lou’s head, the most psycho of all the characters I’ve met in crime fiction so far. Here’s our man self-analysing:

Plenty of pretty smart psychiatrists have been fooled by guys like me, and you can’t really fault ’em for it. There’s just not much they can put their hands on, know what I mean?

We might have the disease, the condition; or we might just be cold-blooded and smart as hell; or we might be innocent of what we’re supposed to have done. We might be any of those three things, because the symptoms we show would fit any one of the three.

Lou Ford, 29, is Deputy Sheriff in Central City, Texas, the kind of place where everybody knows everything about everybody and where you’re still a stranger even if you’ve been living there for twenty years. The novel was published in 1952 and the action is set in that year too. From the first chapter, you know that Lou is a weird guy, especially when he burns a bum with a cigarette butt for nothing, just on the impulse of the moment. He enjoys hurting that bum and I was already ill-at-ease. In French, I would have said “Lou est un drôle de loulou.”

Lou is the son of the now-deceased doctor of the town. He had a brother, Mike, who spent years in prison for assaulting a little girl. When he went out of prison, he became a building inspector and died in a strange accident on his work place. Chester Conway, the rich man of the town who’s in every business and also in construction, had interest that Mike kept his nose out of his muddy business. Lou knows this and intends to use the information if needed.

Things start to get out of hand when Sheriff Maples sends Lou to have a little chat with Joyce Lakeland who recently settled in Central City and makes money out of prostitution. The aim is to make her leave the town as the local bourgeoisie doesn’t like the idea of a whore making business on their land. The encounter will trigger something in Lou’s mind (what he calls “the sickness”) and put his revenge into motion.

Lou Ford is a sick character. He sounds stupid but he’s manipulative and clever. He spices his speech with ridiculous clichés such as “The boy is father to the man” or “The man with the grin is the man who will win” or proverbs. He does it on purpose, to hide his intelligence. We reader, know exactly what he thinks, even if sometimes we’d rather not:

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.

Lou could be Nick’s older brother. (Nick is the main character of Pop. 1280, see my review here) The construction of the two novels is very similar but Pop 1280 turns into black comedy when The Killer Inside Me remains serious and chilling. You can’t help wondering how many Lous are on the loose in our streets. It is written in such a way that Lou talks directly to the reader and as Guy pointed out, The Killer Inside Me is both the killer inside Lou and Lou as a killer inside you, reader. It is so gripping that I bought it for a friend who’s a nurse in psychiatric hospital. She’s specialised in schizophrenia, I’m curious to have her opinion on this book.

In both books, Thompson destroys what make the essence of life in small towns: a state of corruption where the rich are like royalty and do what they want, the permanent gossips, the hypocrisy (Lou explains everybody knows who’s sleeping with whom but the rule is to turn your head to the other side). Of course, all these people are pretty religious in appearance and Lou explains “I picked up lots of good lines at prayer meetings” either giving a lesson to those people who forget on Sundays what they do the rest of the week or turning the speech of genuine believers into something dirty.

For Lou and for Nick, an encounter with a woman and dealings with prostitution will start their journey as cold-blooded killers.

Lou and Nick have many things in common. Their mothers died when they were born. Nick’s father used to beat him. Lou’s father didn’t beat him but knew he was unbalanced. Lou could have studied medicine too but that meant leaving to university and Lou’s father wanted to watch him out. He was afraid of what he was capable of if he left. That’s the sad part of the story. Lou’s intelligence is wasted. If he’s really sick, the absence of efficient treatment and of decent solution for him backfired into his killing spree. Who knows what would have happened with proper medicine and if his father had not cut his wings?

Thompson has a disquieting vision of humanity:

How do you know who I am, Johnnie? How can a man ever really know anything? We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the Good People are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we all had all we wanted to eat, we’d crap too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it. That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard.

I’ve read many crime fiction books with more or less horrible murders. What makes this one special is the way you are in Lou’s mind. I can’t help wondering how Thompson’s mind worked for him to be able to create such characters and minutely describe their insanity. I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t a little bit sick too.

Pop.1280 by Jim Thompson

July 21, 2011 26 comments

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. 1964.

‘Oh, Nick! There’s just no one like you!’ ‘Well, I should hope not,’ I said. ‘The world’d be in a heck of a mess if there was.’

As a reader, I also hope there’s no one like Nick but I know it’s an illusion. Nick Corey is the sheriff of Pottsville, Potts County, somewhere in the Deep South of the USA (Oklahoma?). He’s a slacker, the kind of sheriff who eats like a pig (I bought a bite of lunch […] just a few sandwiches and some pie and potato chips and peanuts and cookies and sody-pop), puts his hat on his face, his feet on his desk and takes a nap after his giant meal. He carefully avoids arresting anybody. When a problem occurs, he always manages to come when the worse is over, makes a lot of noise to show he’s there but stays away from the battle field.

Nick is married to Myra and his fiend of a brother-in-law lives with them. Myra trapped him into marriage, pretending that he raped her. Myra has a murky relationship with her brother who skulks around in the streets at night, playing the peeping tom and staring at women through the windows. Let’s face it, Myra and Nick hate each other. We have a first glimpse at Nick’s twisted mind when he talks about his affair with Rose. She pretends to be Myra’s best friend to get around Nick but she loathes her and Nick knows it. He also perfectly knows that Rose’s husband Tom beats her and it never occurs to him he could enforce the law and do something about it.  

At the moment, Nick has too major problems:

1) The two pimps who pay him commissions in return for his turning a blind eye to their illegal business start to scoff at him.

2) The next sheriff election is coming soon and for the first time, he feels he could loose his position. And what else could he do? As he admits to himself:

All I’d ever done was sheriffin’. It was all I could do. Which was just another way of saying that all I could do was nothing. And if I wasn’t sheriff, I wouldn’t have nothing or be nothing.

At lost about what to do, he decides to pay a visit to his friend and mentor Ken, sheriff in another county. He values Ken’s recommendations and here is how he suggests treating the pimps problem:

‘So I’ll tell you what to do about them pimps. The next time they even look like they’re goin’ to sass you, you just kick ’em in the balls as hard as you can.’ ‘Huh?’ I said. ‘But – but don’t it hurt awful bad?’ ‘Pshaw, ’course it don’t hurt. Not if you’re wearin’ a good pair o’ boots without no holes in ’em.’ ‘That’s right,’ Buck said. ‘You just be sure you ain’t got any toes stickin’ out and it won’t hurt you a-tall.’ ‘I mean, wouldn’t it hurt the pimps?’ I said. ‘Me, I don’t think I could stand even an easy kick in the balls.’ ‘Why, shorely, shorely it would hurt ’em,’ Ken nodded. ‘How else you goin’ to make ’em behave if you don’t hurt ’em bad?’

Great consultant, that Ken, right? But Ken humiliates Nick and on the train home, he meets his former fiancée Amy. Now he knows how to deal with the pimps and starts wishing he could get rid of Myra and Rose.

Nick’s evil instincts remain in rather good check until this trip. It will take the pin of the grenade he has in his head and spread death and desolation in Pottsville. Step by step he will take any action necessary to achieve his goals: take revenge of Ken, get rid of Myra, secure his re-election, treat the problem of the pimps, break-up with Rose, re-conquer Amy. But for Nick, the end justifies the means. And cold blood murder IS an acceptable mean as long as it serves his interests.

What I loved was myself, and I was willing to do anything I god-dang had to to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.

Nick is dangerous and crazy. Dangerously crazy or crazily dangerous, it depends on how you see it. He plays the dummy so that his adversary underestimates him. His spoken speech is full of grammar mistakes but his mental voice is perfectly correct. I thought it was a good device to point out Nick’s duplicity.

I nodded at the paper he was reading. ‘What do you think about them Bullshevicks?’ I said. ‘You reckon they’ll ever overthrow the Czar?’

Only Amy seems to know him well. She notices:

‘About your grammar, possibly. You’re no ignoramus, Nick. Why do you talk like one?’

She’s the only one he still respects and she acts like a moral guide. She tells the difference between right and wrong, partly guesses what he’s been doing and threatens to turn him down if he doesn’t come back on the right path. 

Nick is intelligent. He has a chilling gift to grasp the motivation of his speaker. It made me think of selling techniques. Sales reps are taught to identify the motivation of a client in order to adapt their speech and improve their selling efficiency. The main motivations are security, pride, novelty, comfort, money and sympathy. Nick is an artist at manipulating people. He does know how to play on the right motivation to get what he wants from someone.  

I wouldn’t want to be one of the 1280 souls living in Pottsville. The picture isn’t very attractive: the inhabitants are racist (they still doubt that black people have a soul), violent (they beat their wives and children) and ignorant. In comparison, Nick seems tolerant sometimes, especially when it comes to coloured people. They seem to deserve their lazy and screwy sheriff. And after all, don’t they vote for him? Jim Thompson’s vision of humanity is of the blackest black. The events follow from one awful thing to the other at such a pace that it becomes black comedy sometimes.  

That wasn’t easy for me to read, with all the slang and words like prezackly, Kee-rect!, Natcherly or Shorely. I still try to figure out what the French word for “God-dang” is. Given the context and the use, my guess would be putain but I’m not sure. The French title is 1275 âmes, I wonder why the 1280 from the English title became 1275. Because of 5 murders?

Anyway, I really enjoyed it and will read another Jim Thompson. It will be the The Killer Inside Me, which came in the post last week. I owe this discovery to Guy’s Noir Fest. He reviewed Pop. 1280 here and reading his review is highly recommended.

About Coup de Torchon, by Tavernier, the film version of Pop. 1280.

After reading the book, I decided to rent its film version, Coup de Torchon (1981), a French film by Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier transposed the setting in the French colonies in Africa, in 1938. If Tavernier wanted to give a French context to the film, I think it was a good choice. He was able to keep several crucial elements of the story: the awful treatment of black people, the absolute power of the policeman/sheriff on the city, the small town far from big cities, the corruption, the atmosphere of poverty of means and mind. He couldn’t have given back the atmosphere of a small town in the middle of nowhere, self-sufficient in Métropole. France is too centralised a country to film this in Métropole.

Here is the cast, with French first names: Philippe Noiret (Nick-Lucien), Stéphane Audran (Myra-Huguette), Isabelle Huppert (Rose), Eddy Mitchell (Nono-Lennie). The choice of actors can be discussed. I’m not sure that Philippe Noiret was the best actor to play Nick. He lacks the glint of madness needed for the part. Maybe Depardieu would have been better?

The scenario is well-written. Exact sentences of the novel can be heard in the dialogues but it’s too polite, except for Rose. Lucien speaks too well; he doesn’t make as many grammar mistakes as Nick. I’ve read the book in English; so I can’t tell how it’s been translated into French. But in my experience, French translators fail to give back the accents included in Anglophone books.

What lacked in the film is the vision the reader has of Nick’s mind. I wrote the book review before watching the film. Like I said before, Jim Thompson created two different voices for Nick (thoughts and speech) and I thought it very efficient. I think it even more efficient after watching the film, as I missed the vision of Nick’s duplicity. Perhaps a voiceover would have been useful.

One word about the music: a sort of circus music came again and again at crucial moments, enforcing the idea of a black comedy.

All in all, I think it’s a good film and but it’s not as black as Thompson’s novel.

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