Pulp Fiction Redux #3

The Grifters

By Jim Thompson

The con has been with us forever it seems, a rival to the oldest profession in the world. Cons be as simple as fast talk and sleight of hand or as elaborate as Hollywood fiction (The Sting, 1973, with Newman and Redford as likable double-dealers). While a good con can be entertaining, at least in the movies, in real life it’s anything but. People get hurt and the con world itself is seedy and dangerous. And few authors have captured that aspect of con life as well or as powerfully as Jim Thompson, master miner of the corrupt side of the American psyche. And nothing illustrates that better than The Grifters.

It opens as Roy Dillon, the young, crafty, hardworking con man, stumbles from a shop with an occupational affliction: a bat butt to the guts, a soon to be discovered case of internal hemorrhaging, and a portend of things to come.

Not feeling too bad, he visits his girlfriend Moira, who comments on his paleness. Regardless, they make love.

Fortunately, his mom, Lilly arrives in L.A. on mob business, gets him the doctoring he desperately needs, and rakes the hot coals of the past to flame: the awful mothering and the sexual tension between them. Mom’s always know and Lilly sees through Moira, who herself distrusts Lilly. Mom offers up a tasty morsel to Roy in the form of a young, shy nurse with her own problems stemming from a childhood as a Nazi medical subject. Roy takes advantage of her, though he does think she might be just the girl for him.

All this occurs as he contemplates the merits and demerits of the sales manager job offered to him because he can sell like hell, he’s personable, and he’s a terrific motivator. But Roy knows what he is: a con man top to bottom, and one interested in a little revenge on his mom, if it kills him.

To tell you the rest, will spoil the book if you haven’t read it. If you have read it, no need to tell you that maybe Roy wasn’t the con man he imaged himself to be.

Few writers understand the underbelly of human nature quite like Thompson. Fewer still capture our dark sides in cleaner, sharper prose than Thompson. Readers, and moviegoers, today seem to like cartoonish bad folk who extravagantly spill blood by the gallons. Thompson, in contrast, penetrates the psyches of people who might be like us, at least in appearance, but who harbor more of the parts of us we have socialized into confinement in the recesses of our minds. Roy Dillon, a man risen from a tough start and presented with legit opportunities, chooses the dark side of life.

Another thing to admire in Thompson is his ability to economically layer part of the action underneath the main story; not subtext but an integral element of the main tale running in the background and brought forward when needed to complete the story. That would be Moira in The Grifters.

Highly recommended, along with Thompson’s other works, among them The Killer Inside Mew/c

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