Jim and Alberta Thompson, early 1940s. There may never have lived a more ruthlessly honest storyteller.
Solar Aircraft Company during World War II. "An average of only one out of 25 applicants is given a job, and fully a fourth of those are discharged during or at the end of the 30-day probationary period."
From the San Diego Journal, June 6, 1942:
Novel Climaxes Privations of Solar Worker
The drab garb of an aircraft worker often hides the personality of startling contrasts, and, to look at Jim Thompson, 35, at his job as timekeeper in Solar Aircraft Co.’s finish fitting department, you would not guess that he’s a novelist who has just crashed “Who’s Who.” The aircrafter saw drama in the problems of a war worker’s family and transposed it to paper in the recently published novel Now and on Earth.
Share of Troubles
“The things we live for always seem far off in the future,” he commented today. “We are promised pie in the sky when we die or a brotherhood of man 20 years from now. What I wanted to depict was the struggle to settle our problems now on earth.”
Jim Thompson, Linda Vista, early 1940s. Steven King: “What makes Thompson’s books literature is his unflinching flatly lighted examination of the alienated mind....”
As head of a family with three children, Patricia, 10; Sharon, 6; and Michael, 4, Thompson has had his share of earth’s troubles, not the least of which were circumstances surrounding the writing of his novel.
Forced from University
The depression forced him to leave the University of Nebraska in 1931 after two years’ study of agricultural journalism. Extensive writing for the trade press yielded small financial returns. Stranded in Oklahoma City by the collapse of a detective magazine, for which he was writing a series, Thompson (who, by the way, is a native Oklahoman) got a job with the WPA writers’ project at $75 a month in 1936 and gradually worked his way up to the state director’s position, which he held from 1938 to 1939.
A labor history of Oklahoma attracted the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, which awarded him an $1800 fellowship, through the University of Carolina Press, to perform research on the building industry.
He arrived in San Diego in January 1941, at the tag end of his research. When the expected extension of the fellowship failed to materialize, Thompson, again stranded, applied to the U.S. employment service and landed a job as a stock clerk in a local aircraft plant, where he worked seven months....
Thompson family in La Jolla, 1942. Daughter Sharon: "He believed in God, though he used to tease my mom about her Catholicism by saying he couldn’t get into heaven because he wasn’t baptized,"
When I was a kid in the 1950s, aliens were from outer space. Illegal immigrants from Mexico we called “wetbacks.” Whites from the Midwest were usually “Okies.” They’d descended upon us either during the depression or the war. According to the stereotype, they talked slowly, had sun-weathered skin, drove old rusted pickups, and lived in shacks, usually with a bunch of cousins and 15 or 20 kids.
Nobody accused the Okies of being lazy or particularly dishonest like they did the “wetbacks.” Unsophisticated, the Okies were considered. Congenitally unable to get with the program, to wear a gray flannel suit or give a sales pitch or hunker over a desk manipulating numbers — any of the stuff that a fellow had to do to decently house and feed his family, to buy them a television, a tract house, and a new car every five years. Because anybody who didn’t have that stuff wanted it, we agreed, and was trying to wrest it from those of us who had it. Meaning they were either thieves or Communists. Most Okies weren’t thieves. So they must be Communists.
Jim Thompson was an Okie. More educated than the stereotype. A whole lot more sophisticated. He’d arrived during the second wave that hit the state, San Diego in particular, as the factories along Harbor Drive converted to wartime production and hired workers by the thousands. After losing his job as director of the federal Work Projects Administration (WPA) Oklahoma State Writers’ Project, when his friend Bob Woods needed a car delivered to California, Thompson grasped the opportunity. Maybe out in California he could become a novelist and rescue his father from the Oklahoma nursing home where, on account of Pop’s health and their other burdens, they’d left him behind.
At Ryan Aeronautical, Thompson worked 12-hour days through spring and summer. He wrote about the factory and its workers in Now and on Earth:
In the ten weeks I have been here I have heard the word f—k used more often than I had in my life heretofore. Everyone uses it, from the factory manager down to the maintenance men. Upstairs in the office you will hear it 50 times in an hour, and the women and girls have become so accustomed to it that they never so much as raise an eyebrow....
I don’t know why the word should be more popular in aircraft than it is elsewhere, but there must be a reason. I’ve been dallying with the idea of writing Ben Botkin about it — perhaps doing a little paper on it — but, of course, I won’t. If I do any writing, it’ll be on my story. It’s about finished, and I can get some money for it. I hope. Generally, you don’t hear as much off-color talk around the plant as you would elsewhere. (I know I’ve given a contrary impression.) What you do hear is less sordid, seemingly, than the brand outside. I have heard only one shady story since I have been here—only one you couldn’t tell in church.
San Diego, before the establishment of the aircraft factories, was not inappropriately dubbed the “City of the Living Dead.” There were no industries, there was no construction; the town’s one asset was its climate. If you were young and wanted excitement and had a living to make, why, the town wouldn’t want you and you wouldn’t want it. If you were old and had a small income or pension, you couldn’t have found a more attractive place to live (or die) in.
Well, when the defense boom struck, the town just couldn’t throw off its lethargy. It did ultimately, but for a long time the city fathers’ idea of taking care of a 100 percent increase in population was to up the price of rents and other living incidentals by a corresponding increase. Living isn’t cheap here now, or even moderately reasonable, but the government has stepped in — but here’s the story, also from Now and on Earth.
A newly arrived aircraft worker walked into a bar and ordered a cheese sandwich and a bottle of beer. The waitress took the dollar bill he proffered in payment and gave him back a dime in change.
Ruefully the aircrafter asked her if there wasn’t some mistake.
Oh, no. Sandwich, 50. Beer, 40. No mistake.
“Funny,” said the aircrafter in a tone that said it wasn’t. And his eyes settled on the buxom mounds of her bosom. “What’s those?”
The waitress colored. “Why they’re my breasts, you fool! What’d you think they were?”
“Didn’t know. Everything else in here is so high, I thought they might be the cheeks of your ass.”
Offhand, I’d say that two thirds of the men are under 30; half of them, probably, under 25. And intelligence is much higher than the average.... Practically every production worker who is not already a skilled mechanic must be a trade school graduate, which means, invariably, that he is a high-school graduate also. In non-production, such as I am in, two years of college or the equivalent are required. Degrees are so numerous as to be commonplace. An average of only one out of 25 applicants is given a job, and fully a fourth of those are discharged during or at the end of the 30-day probationary period.
I mention all this, not by way of giving myself an indirect pat on the back, but because of the newspaper talk to the effect that the aircraft plants have made the WPA and other relief agencies unnecessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. You find no dispossessed sharecroppers or barnyard mechanics here. They get no farther than the office boy in the Personnel Department.
Off work, Thompson drank. If sorrow repeatedly drove him to booze, as in the case of Jim Dillon, the narrator of Now and on Earth — two sorrows must’ve weighed heaviest.
There was the failure of his writing. Sapped of his creativity after several years of WPA projects, and plagued by the difficulties of his family life, at age 35 he felt like a has-been before he’d even gotten started with his real ambition, to become a novelist.
Over all else hung the guilt for having left his father in an Oklahoma City nursing home. He wanted to send for “Pop,” reunite the family in San Diego. But at $36 a week, split between Thompson, his wife, three kids, and his mother, it wasn’t happening.
Thompson and his father had long been antagonists, opposed in vision and disposition. Both were dreamers, only Jimmie’s dreams were artistic. Pop’s entrepreneurial. In Thompson’s autobiography, Bad Boy, we find Pop as a Democratic sheriff in Republican territory; a too-honest-to-win candidate for Congress; an innocent fugitive from embezzling charges; a successful attorney/accountant; as the proprietor of a sawmill, a hotel, a truck farm, a bush-league baseball club, a garbage hauling concern, a turkey ranch, a general store; as a partner with Jake Hamon in the oil business; an oil millionaire, until he and Jake Hamon parted ways. After a couple of years in the Texas oil fields, he’d depleted the fortune.
Since Jimmie proved as shy, quiet, and brooding as Pop was hearty, funny, genial, Pop didn’t understand the kid. Not being a master at holding his peace, he consistently upbraided Jimmie for his “shortcomings.” Especially when, as a teenager, Jimmie turned to dissipation and crime as a bellhop in a luxury hotel and sometime procurer of illegal commodities.
When Jimmie, entering his teens, questioned whether “a man who had made such a screwup of his own affairs” was a suitable mentor for him; father and son squared off in a test of wills that lasted a decade.
In 1925 Jimmie and Pop partnered in a wildcat oil well near Big Springs, Texas. The well came in, but not before they’d mortgaged it away. When a dreamer’s dream is smashed, he either finds a new one or wastes away. Jimmie had one — becoming a writer. Pop’s dreams seem to have fled, hissing and jeering on the way. For some years he refused to surrender abjectly. Yet by 1941, the battle was over. Jimmie had won the right to serve as head of a three-generation family, the caretaker of a broken old man.
Author Steven King: “Know what I admire most about the guy? The guy was over the top. The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop. There are three brave lets inherent in the foregoing. He let himself see everything, then he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it.... He wrote goddam good stories, but goddam good stories are not literature. Who knows that better than I do? What makes Thompson’s books literature is his unflinching flatly lighted examination of the alienated mind, the psyche wired up like a nitro bomb....”
Now and on Earth reads like an autobiography. The family has three kids, the wife, sister, and mother, the father in an Oklahoma City nursing home. The most tragic character is Shannon, the youngest daughter, a ferocious and willful four-year-old. In Chapter 11, Jim Dillon recognizes why, the evening he announces a pay raise at the factory.
Well — four cents an hour isn’t much, but it did make me feel kind of good. And I suppose the folks saw how I felt and they didn’t kid me about it even when I invited it by kidding myself. Everyone said that the company must think a lot of me to make an exception like that.
After a good deal of friendly debate we decided to spend the extra two dollars on a Sunday dinner, with me planning and preparing the menu. I can cook, you know: I mean, I did it, many years ago, for a living.
I started for the store, and Shannon asked me if she could go along. And of course I said she couldn’t, because I was afraid she might start something. I should have known that there was something wrong with her or she wouldn’t have asked; she’d just have gone. But I didn’t think, and surprisingly enough she didn’t come anyway. She just got up and went back into the bedroom and closed the door.
She wasn’t around at supper time, but we didn’t think anything of it; she’s in the habit of keeping her own hours. But along about eight o’clock we began to get worried and we started looking for her. I won’t tell you where all we looked — I even went down to the bay. To make it short, I found her in the closet in our bedroom. I’d gone in there to get a jacket because it was getting kind of cool, and when I lifted it off the hook I knocked some dresses down and I saw Shannon.
She was way back in the corner, sitting on the floor. She’d got Frankie’s manicure set and some lipstick and other cosmetics and she was a sight.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Now, what will your mother say? Don’t you know we’ve been looking all over the country for you? Can’t you ever behave yourself? Come on out of there!”
She got up and held out her hands, and like a damned fool I didn’t understand. “Now don’t daub that stuff all over my pants! For Christ’s sake come on out and wash yourself and eat something if you want it, and go to bed.”
“Don’t you think my hands are pretty, Daddy?” she said.
And then I began to catch on. But at that moment Roberta came up. She let out a wild shriek.
“Shannon! Look at your dress! And you’ve got that stuff all over my suede shoes. And —”
She grabbed her and began to slap her, and Shannon didn’t fight back. And then she, Roberta, began to understand and she got down on her knees and hugged and kissed her.
“Of course you’re pretty! You’re the prettiest girl in this whole wide world! Wasn’t that nice of her, Daddy, to make herself pretty for us? Just think! All this time she was b-back —” We were all crying — even Jo and Mack.
We were all thinking. A little girl, a four-year-old, back in that dark closet for four hours. A little girl who had never been wanted — and who, I realize now, knew that she had never been wanted — trying to make herself wanted; fighting at the last ditch with a weapon she had always scorned to use. Trying to make herself pretty. I thought of her fierceness, how with the animal’s desperate impulse for survival, she had struggled against neglect and slight. The tantrums she had thrown to secure a new dress or a warm coat; her swiftness in striking before she could be struck; her dogged determination to have the food she desired — and needed. Yes, and her wakefulness, the fear of attack in her sleep.
And I thought of how, during those four years that she had been with us, she must have wept in her heart, even as she fought and screamed; the loneliness that must have been hers; the fear and dread. And I thought Why did it have to be this way, and, as with everything else, I could find no answer....
Thompson wasn’t the cleanest writer, or the craftiest. Now and on Earth contains scenes, mostly about working in the stockroom, that lend the story realism and might be intriguing to a historian of industry, but that’s about all. Yet the book remains a masterpiece for the parts it does so well. For the stuff we’re going to take on as if they were experiences of our own. That’s the kind of stuff Thompson offers. Maybe his life wasn’t orderly enough to allow for much revision.
When, between the job, grief, and drinking, Thompson could summon the will and strength to write, his productivity might appear superhuman. About this capability, he would write, “An alcoholic, in the unarrested state of his disease, is incapable of sustained effort. He will perform some surprising feat of industry and intelligence, accomplishing, perhaps, six months’ work in one.
"That probably will be all an employer will get out of him, however, for six months plus, provided he stays around that long. For he is not building a future in a job. He is only proving to himself that he can, ‘if he takes a notion,’ outwork and out-think any top-notch employee. He is, in short, only justifying his own past drinking and establishing his right to continue it.”
Jim Dillon of Now and on Earth can neither sustain the effort nor achieve a burst of creative energy. Life, people keep intruding. On a wild night in Tijuana, Jim’s sister Frankie goes to a hotel room with his supervisor, Moon. A month or so later:
“I don’t know why you got yourself in such a fix,” said Mom. “I declare, Frankie! The way I tried to — ”
“You’ll have to get a doctor.”
“I can’t seem to find out about any. I’ve been kind of feeling my way around with some of the other girls. But — ”
“I told you we’d find one. I’ve never been — ” I stopped, and avoided Roberta’s eyes. “I’m pretty sure we can find a doctor. But it’ll cost to beat hell the way things are out here now. They’re all getting by so good, and they won’t touch it unless you make it worth their while.”
“That’s depression rates. We might get it done for a hundred.”
Frankie flexed her bare toes and looked down at her fingernails. “I guess I could get it if I had to. Some loan shark would let me have it, probably, at 100 percent interest.”
“You’ll not do anything of the kind,” said Mom.
“My goodness! You talk as if $100 grew on trees, child! We’ll just make that fellow Moon pay for it, that’s all. Jimmie, you just tell him he’d better get the money and get it quick or he’ll wish he had."
“No, don’t do that,” Frankie said. “I don’t want you to.”
“I’d look fine telling him to come through,” I said. “The first thing I’d know I’d be walking down the road talking to myself. I’ve got about a month to go before I’m eligible for unemployment compensation. I don’t care what happens after that, but I’m sticking around until then.”
Roberta looked at me. “Oh,” she said, “so that’s it! That’s what you’ve been thinking about when you sat around here evenings looking off into space. If you think for a minute, James Dillon, that I’m going to skimp along on 15 or 18 dollars a week when you could be making —”
“It’d be around 20. And you could have it all. I’d go someplace and kind of get straightened out, and — ”
“No siree! No sir-ee! Anytime you go. I’m going right along with you. You’re not going any place unless the family and all of us go, too. Get that idea out of your head right now.”
“But if I could get away and start writing again — ”
“I guess if you really want to write, you can do it here. You sold that last story, didn’t you? Well?”
“Yes, I sold it. I sat in here and picked it out at 50 words a night. And I averaged ten cups of coffee and a package of cigarettes to every line. I didn’t write. I just kept reaching out and throwing down handfuls of words, and I moved them around and struck out and erased until I secured combinations that weren’t completely idiotic. And in the end I sold the thing to a fourth-rate magazine. I can’t do it again, I won’t do it again.”
“I thought we were going to talk about me,” said Frankie.
“Why, Jesus Christ,” I said, “I don’t see how you can ask me to! What if you’d been a singer — not a great one but pretty good — and you knew how a thing ought to be sung, but your voice was cracked—you needed some repairs before you could sing again. It was in such bad condition that it was plain hell for you to listen to it, and you knew it was at least as bad to others. So you weren’t singing. You couldn’t, and the effort of trying left you so sick and discouraged with yourself that if you kept on you would never recover. Well, then, under those circumstances, would you still take engagements? Would you — ”
“I would if I could get a hundred dollars,” said Mom.
And Roberta said, “Jimmie’s always been like that, Mom. Why, one week when he got five hundred dollars for two little old stories, he was going around and swearing and saying that he was ruined, that he’d forgotten how to write. You’d’ve thought the world was coming to an end.... Now you know you did, Jimmie! You know you’ve always been like that.”
Well — I guess I have. I guess every writer has. But there was a difference, a difference only another writer can understand.
“Oh, see here,” said Frankie, “can’t we stick to the — ”
“And that’s another thing,” I said. “When and if I do start writing again, there’s going to be no more of this crap.... Never again, you understand? All of you get that through your heads. I’m going to write what I want to write and the way I want to write it.”
“Another book, I suppose,” said Roberta.
“Lord deliver us,” said Mom.
“All right,” I said, “maybe I will write another book. What’s so funny about that?”
“Nothing, as I remember,” said Frankie. “But I thought we were—” “I’ll say it wasn’t funny,” said Roberta. “You might remember. Mom? He’d come home from work at night and you’d’ve thought he was walking in his sleep. He’d sit down, and maybe he’d speak and maybe he’d just stare at you; and if you said anything to him, he wouldn’t answer, or what he would say didn’t make sense. And half of the time you’d think he’d been in a wreck — his clothes all sloppy and his vest buttoned up wrong, and cigarette ashes and coffee stains from one end of him to the other. He always wore such good clothes, too. It just made me sick to look at him.”
“Oh God,” I said.
“Yes, oh God,” said Roberta. “That’s what I used to say. He’d finish his supper — and it didn’t make any difference how nice it was, he never noticed — and then he’d fuss and fidget around and get his typewriter out and put it right down in the middle of the table before I could get the dishes off. It didn’t make any difference if I’d finished my coffee — ”
“And then the dirt-daubers would start coming in,” I said. “There was — ”
“That’s what he called my friends, Mom. Dirt-daubers. They were real nice ladies, too.”
“Women, Mother,” said Jo.
“Will you shut your mouth?”
“There was that four-eyed bitch,” I said, “that was always telling you you ought to make me help with the housework. And that half-wit you’d met over at the grocery store. And that droopy-drawered gal — I don’t think you ever told me her name; I don’t think she knew what it was herself. And you’d get in the other room and talk just loud enough so that I’d know you were talking, but not so that I could hear what you were saying. And it would go on, by God, for hours.”
“Yes, Mom,” said Roberta. “I’d have company coming in, and I never knew it to fail there’d be collectors coming to the door all evening and I’d have to go and talk to them with everyone listening. I couldn’t let Jimmie go because he’d either swear at them or promise them the world with a ring around it to make them go away. I tell you — ”
“I know how it was,” said Mom. “I know how Pop — ”
“I got so mad I wanted to kill him sometimes. All he was getting was a teeny little old 15-dollar-a-week advance, and we just barely had enough money to get by on, and he could have been making all kinds of money. MacFaddens wanted him to do a serial, and Gangbusters was calling him long distance and sending wires, and Fawcetts was begging him to go to that governors’ convention and pick up 10 or 12 little editorials on crime-prevention — it wouldn’t have taken any time at all and he could’ve gotten $75 apiece for them — ”
“Well, I finally gave in,” I said. “I rushed the book on out.”
“Rushed it, the devil,” said Roberta. “You talk about being slow, now. You couldn’t have been any slower and written anything at all. I thought I’d go crazy. And Sunday was the worst of all. We couldn’t go any place. We’d hardly get out of bed before Jimmie’s friends — they weren’t my friends. I’ll tell you! — would start coming in. And they’d be there all day, drinking coffee and scattering cigarette ashes all over everything, and — and you’d have thought it was their place instead of ours. They’d flop right down on my clean bedspread and sprawl around on the floors and go to the toilet — and you could hear them going, Mom. They’d go in there and leave the door wide open and holler in to the front room when they had anything to say. And if they wanted something to eat, they just went right into the kitchen and helped themselves....”
“Well, I got rid of them.”
“Yes, you got rid of them! After I — ”
“I got rid of them...and the book.”
“And after you’d put me through all that, the book wasn’t published!”
“Wasn’t it?” I said. “I’d forgotten. It must have been quite a disappointment to you.”
“Well,” said Roberta, “I couldn’t help it.”
“Funny how it slipped my mind,” I said. “But of course I wasn’t really interested in the thing.”
Roberta’s mouth shut, and there was the old helpless puzzled look around it. “I don’t know why I can’t ever say anything — ”
“You’re doing fine, honey. You’ve said quite a bit.”
“Jimmie,” said Frankie, “give up. What I want to know is — ”
“I think that’s the thing to do, Jimmie,” said Mom, plucking absently at a safety pin in her dress.
“What — give up? I already have.”
I knew that wasn’t what she meant. She’d been having a long discussion with me — even if I hadn’t heard it — and she (we) had reached a satisfactory conclusion. I knew it, but I wouldn’t admit it. That is one trick of Mom’s that exasperates me.
“Do what?” I said. “What are you talking about anyway?”
“Why — about the story. We can send it to this last magazine, they liked your work so well, and we could have a check back inside of a month. Frankie would pay you back, of course, but it would save borrowing from...”
I looked at her. I looked at Frankie and Roberta. Jo was grinning. Everyone else, apparently, seemed to think it was all right. Mom had pulled a rabbit out of a hat. She had dived down into the muck and come up with a diamond.
“Well, I will be goddamned!” I said. “I will be damned by all the saints and Christ and Mary. They can damn me individually and collectively and I will not say a word. They can come in pairs and squads and regiments, in trucks and sidecars, on roller skates and bicycles, and they can damn me to their heart’s content! What in the name of — ”
I got the bottle out of the kitchen and had a slug.
“Don’t pay any attention to him, Mom,” said Roberta. “He’s just acting crazy.”
“Now look,” I said. “Once and for all, I am not — ”
“Jimmie! You’re spilling that stuff all over the rug!”
“ — I positively will not write another story. I’ll peck horse-turds with the sparrows — ”
“Jimmie! You dirty thing!”
“I’ll swill slop with the hogs; I’ll peddle French postcards; I’ll bend over bathtubs — ”
“I’ll adopt Frankie’s triplets or whatever she has and give them the same thoughtful and tender rearing I’d give my own. But I will not — I utterly by God will not write another story!”
I sat down again.
“He means he won’t write another story,” Frankie remarked idly to Roberta.
“Oh,” said Roberta.
“Well,” said Mom. “I don’t see why not.”
I choked on the drink I was taking.
“Mom,” said Frankie.
“Well, I don’t,” said Mom. “Of course, this isn’t the best place in the world to write, but you can’t always have things just like you want them. Why, look at the way Jack London did, Jimmie! He — ”
“Now just a minute,” I said. “I want to introduce a piece of evidence. Will you look at this for just a minute?”
Mom looked at the black-and-white photostat and handed it back. “I don’t see what your birth certificate has to do with it.”
“It establishes the fact that I am not Jack London? It proves conclusively that I am not Jack London, but a guy named James Dillon? It — ”
“You’d better stop acting so crazy, Jimmie,” said Roberta. “You know how you’ll get.”
“No, you’re not Jack London,” said Mom, fumbling faster with the safety pin. “Jack London didn’t give up just because he didn’t have everything right like he wanted it. He wrote on fishing boats and in lumber camps and — ”
“And I wrote in caddie houses and hotel locker rooms and out on the pipeline; I wrote between orders of scrambled eggs and hot beef sandwiches; I wrote in the checkroom of a dance hall; I wrote in my car while I was chasing down deadbeats and skips; I wrote while I was chopping dough in a bakery. I held five different jobs at one time and I went to school, and I wrote. I wrote a story every day for 30 days. I wrote — ”
“I think we’d all better go to bed,” said Roberta. “Come on, hon — ”
“I will not go to bed!”
“I didn’t mean anything,” said Mom. “I was just saying —”
“You didn’t read your Jack London far enough. He began slipping off the deep end when he was 30. Well, I’m 35. Thirty-five, can you understand that? And I’ve written three times as much as London wrote. I — ”
“Let’s skip it,” said Frankie.
“You skip it! Skip through 15 million words for the Writers’ Project. Skip through a half million for the foundation. Skip through the back numbers of five strings of magazines. Skip through 40,50, yes, 75,000 words a week, week after week, for the trade journals. Skip through 36 hours of radio continuity. Do you know what that means — 36 hours? Did you ever sit down and write 36 hours of conversation? Conversation that had to sparkle; had to make people laugh or cry, had to keep them from turning to another station. Did you? Did you?”
“Of course you didn’t. Why should you? What would it get you? What did it get me? Shall I tell you? You’re damned right I shall. It got me a ragged ass and beans three times a week. It got me haircuts in barber colleges. It got me piles that you could stack washers on. It got me a lung that isn’t even bad enough to kill me. It got me in a dump with six strangers. It got me in jail 48 hours a week and a lunatic asylum on Sunday. It got me whisky, yes, and cigarettes, yes, and a woman to sleep with, yes. It got me 25,000 reminders ten million times a day that nothing I’d done meant anything. It got me this, this extraordinarily valuable, this priceless piece of information that I’m not...”
I opened my eyes and said, “Jack London.”
I was sitting on the divan. Roberta had her arm around me. Frankie was holding out a drink.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I guess I slopped over.”
“I didn’t mean you hadn’t worked hard,” said Mom. “I know how hard you’ve worked.”
“You’d better go to bed, Mom,” said Frankie. “I’m going to turn in as soon as — ”
“No, I’m all right,” I said. “Now that we’ve buried the dead, let’s take up the living. What do you think we’d better do, Frankie?”
In early September of 1941, Jim Thompson caught a bus for New York in search of a writing job through which he could save enough to spring his father from the nursing home and care for him. On the way to New York, he laid over in Oklahoma City to visit Pop. In Roughneck, he fictionalized the encounter:
He could not believe it was I when I first walked in on him. The seven long, lonely months must have seemed like years to him, and I think he had begun to feel we had abandoned him.
I made him understand the truth: that his remaining here was due to circumstances beyond our control.
“Well, it’s all over now,” he said. “You just help me get my things together, and I’ll clear out of here right now.”
“Pop,” I said. “I — ”
“Well?” He looked at me. “You’re going to take me away, aren’t you? That’s why you’ve come back?”
I hesitated. Then, I said, yes, that was why. “But I can’t go with you. Pop. I’m on my way to New York.”
“Oh?” He frowned troubledly. “Well, I guess I could travel by myself if — ”
“I’ve got a swell job there,” I lied. “Give me — well, just give me a month and I can send you to California by state room. Get you a nurse if you need one. But the best I can do now is a bus ticket.”
“I don’t know,” he said dubiously. “I’m afraid the doctor...I’m afraid I couldn’t....” He sat back down on the bed. “You’re sure, Jimmie. If I wait another month, you’ll — ”
“That’s a promise. And I never break a promise.”
When the writing job in New York proved a phantom, Thompson gathered together enough of the story of Now and on Earth to convince Modern Age, a small publishing house, to stake him to a hotel room, food, paper, and a typewriter for a few weeks. Between September and December, when he returned to San Diego shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Thompson completed the novel. Michael J. McCauley, Thompson’s biographer, speculates that writing the first draft of Now and on Earth probably took Jim Thompson three weeks. Apparently he delivered the manuscript to his publisher, Modern Age, and collapsed. Over the next two weeks, while Thompson recovered from nervous exhaustion in Bellevue Hospital, Modern Age enlisted writers Richard Wright and Louis Bromfield to evaluate the manuscript. From Roughneck:
I started across town toward my rooming house, worrying again — continuing to worry. It was a day short of five weeks, since I had left Oklahoma. Not much over a month, to be sure, but to an old man who secretly feared that he might be forsaken.... I reached Fifth Avenue. Instead of crossing it, I suddenly turned and headed uptown. Surely the publisher would be able to make his decision by this time. By God, he simply had to.
Well, he had.
He walked me into his office, his arm around my shoulders. “Got some good reports from Louis and Dick. They’re going to fix us up with blurbs to put on the cover.... Now, I do feel that quite a few revisions are necessary. There are a couple of chapters I’d like to see excised and new ones substituted. But —”
“Oh,” I said, pretty drearily. “Then it’ll still be quite a while before — ”
“What? Oh, no, we’ll pay you for it right now. We’re definitely accepting it. Incidentally, when you get this one out of the way, we’ll be glad to — yes?”
The receptionist was standing in the doorway. She murmured an apology, held out a Western Union envelope. “This came yesterday, Mr. Thompson. I tried to reach you by phone, but — ”
“It must be from my mother,” I said. “I wasn’t sure how long I’d be at that rooming house, so I told her to — to — ”
I ripped the envelope open.
I stared down at the message.
Blindly. Stricken motionless.
“Bad news?” The publisher’s hushed voice.
“My father,” I said. “He died two days ago.”
Thompson’s sister Freddie recalled him saying their father died of a broken heart. The death certificate lists the cause of death as pneumonia.
Thompson returned to his rooming house and began the revisions of Now and on Earth, the elation of finally realizing his dream of becoming a published novelist crushed beneath the failure to rescue his father. In the things that mattered most, in critical times, in the stuff closest to his heart.
What gives Now and on Earth its poignancy is the relentless, brutal portrayal of a man who has realized the futility of striving.
With Modern Age awaiting his next novel, Thompson set to work on the story that would appear years later as Nothing More Than Murder. The small advances he got from sending chapters to Modern Age as he finished them, along with a salary from Solar Aircraft, where he’d found employment as a timekeeper, paid the family expenses and gave him drinking money, until Modern Age folded. A year or so after Pearl Harbor, the draft had taken most of the principals of the publishing house.
So in 1944, at age 37, Thompson became a Marine. He lasted 12 weeks, plus a few in the infirmary, with rheumatic fever. After the discharge, he spent most of that summer recuperating at home, while his family got by on the salary Alberta made as a switchboard operator at Solar.
Jim’s mother’s health was failing. When she died in early 1945, Jim not only suffered the loss but from concern for his children, particularly Sharon, the eight-year-old, who had lit a candle at the Catholic church believing the act would save her grandmother. According to Sharon, “Daddy was terribly worried that Grandma’s death, after I lit candles, would undermine my faith. Daddy didn’t go to church, but we had long discussions about religion. He believed in God, though he used to tease my mom about her Catholicism by saying he couldn’t get into heaven because he wasn’t baptized, though he had been. When he was in the hospital, ministers and priests and rabbis would come around asking if he’d like them to pray for him. He’d say, ‘It couldn’t hurt.’ ”
Since his literary agent had failed to sell Nothing More Than Murder, in January 1945, Thompson rode the train to New York. He went knocking on publishers’ doors. Finding no interest in his murder story, he pitched the idea for a historical novel to a small publisher named Greenberg, who staked him to hotel room, food, cigarettes, and whiskey. Over eight weeks, Thompson wrote Heed the Thunder, a family saga in which the main character presents a view that would inform most of his later work. The family’s patriarch, Lincoln Fargo, declares:
‘We don’t ever learn. There ain’t none of us can tell whether it’ll rain the next day or not. We don’t know whether our kids are goin’ to be boys or girls. Or why the world turns one way instead of another. Or the what or why or w hen of anything. Hindsight’s the only gift we got, except on one thing. On that, we’re all prophets.
“We know what’s in the other fellow's mind. It don’t make a difference that we’ve never seen him before, or whatever. We know that he’s out to do us if he gets the chance.”
Back in San Diego, Thompson made his living writing true crime stories and taking odd jobs. When his new book appeared, the San Diego Tribune reviewed it:
“ Heed the Thunder, the second published novel by Jim Thompson...is a serious study of the transition from hand to machine industry, illustrated by the life of a small Nebraska town from 1907 to 1914, showing the sacrifice of land and human resources to the ‘immediate dollar.’
“A tall, slender, greying man, Thompson, 40, started writing when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Andarko, Oklahoma, and has since written an estimated 7,000,000 words in novel, poetry, articles, and other literary production.
“He makes long studies of his subjects in his San Diego home, then goes to New York, locks himself in a hotel room, works 16 to 18 hours a day and turns out a 100,000-word novel in five weeks.
“What is his advice to youngsters seeking writing careers? ‘Take up plumbing,’ he grins.”
Turning from the historical trilogy he had promised Greenberg, Thompson revised Nothing More Than Murder and gathered more rejections. In 1947, he took a job as a re-write man with the San Diego Journal.
Lionel Van Deerlin worked with Thompson at the Journal. Van Deerlin remembers him as “a very large man, with the characteristic stoop large men often have. A proper fellow, meticulous dresser. Never sloppy. He often wore tweeds. His voice was a degree or two below normal. He spoke in parsed sentences and wasn’t a trigger-ready humorist, but he had a droll wit and could see irony everywhere. He was a very, very pleasant person to be around.
“He was a gifted re-write man and feature writer. There was a story about a boy dying, four or five paragraphs. I remember one morning just after he finished, sitting there reading it. I found myself weeping.
“One of a kind, a very fine man, though he had a problem staying sober. On several occasions, I’d get a call early morning and go pick him up at a building—I think it’s a bed and breakfast now, just north of Mr. A’s. Then it was a drying-out establishment. I’d pick him up there and take him to work.
“Once a new owner, Captain Kennedy, came into the city room and bawled Jim out for something. We knew what would come of that, and we were right. By afternoon, Jim was drunk.” About her father’s drinking, Sharon Reed concludes, “Daddy was what I guess they call an episodic alcoholic, but when he was writing he kept a good schedule, just like somebody that held a regular job. He would write at regular times and take breaks, and eat lunch. Drinking would never interfere with his writing. And he never acted mean when he drank. Although sometimes drinking would give him telephonitis. He’d call people and talk forever. For a year while we lived in San Diego he didn’t drink. The program he was in gave him a one-year-sober birthday party.”
Thompson lost his job at the Journal. One more dark night of the soul. Then the miracle.
Nothing More Than Murder was accepted by Harper’s, a publisher so prestigious Thompson hadn’t bothered to submit to them until Alberta insisted, after all the lesser houses had turned him down.
Nothing More Than Murder begins the string of novels upon which Thompson’s fame and reputation hang. They’re called “noir” stories. Nightmares, commonly told by psychopaths.
Joe Wilmot, who narrates Nothing More Than Murder, is a witty, shrewd, and likeable guy, the kind whom you’d enjoy swapping lies with over drinks. He runs a movie theater in a small town. His wife originally owned the theater. Now they’re partners. She engages a housekeeper, a dull, homely, but voluptuous young woman, whom Joe seduces. The wife learns about the affair and makes up her mind to leave Joe. But she wants the money from the business and he won’t give it up. So they devise a plan to swindle a life insurance company by arranging for yet another hired woman to burn in a house fire in such a way that she appears to be Joe’s wife.
Thompson’s challenge as a storyteller is to make the psychopath appear real. He meets the challenge brilliantly by showing that Joe’s tragic flaw isn’t some inhuman quirk but one we all possess — the ability to disregard the value of other human beings, to think of them as objects who either should serve our needs or disappear. This attitude coupled with a world view that contends all we know about other people is “they’re out do us if they get the chance,” makes otherwise harmless Joe a fiend.
Lou Ford, the maniac sheriff of The Killer Inside Me, is a bright and learned man who masquerades as a bumpkin in order to cover for himself after the “sickness” first appears during his adolescence. Lou’s mania could be partly genetic. At age 13, he seduces (or is seduced by) his father’s mistress. A couple of years later, he molests a little girl. To protect Lou, his brother takes the blame. Later a town big shot sees to the murder of Lou’s brother, for business reasons. So Lou goes after the big shot by murdering his son, who is in love with the same prostitute who has reawakened Lou’s “sickness.” He has to kill them both. He doesn’t want to, but he has to. He also has to kill his long-time girlfriend, and a hobo who catches on to his deeds, and a young man who idolizes him but stumbles into the way. Occasionally, Lou exhibits homicidal rage. Other times he simply accomplishes what has to be done. When sorrow appears, it’s over the fact that our world is a grim place where people won’t let you be.
In The Grifters, Thompson carries to the extreme two ideas: narcissism and the suspicion that all we know is that people are out to do us. Lilly Dillon, a glamorous con who’s the mother of con man Roy Dillon, grows to believe so securely that Roy’s out to steal her blind, she destroys him. Of all the hard cases in all the tough books, Lilly Dillon gets the prize.
Reading Jim Thompson’s books, you might wonder what kind of sinister mind conceived them. But Sharon Reed remembers her father as “always gentle and kind, not at all like many of his books. He was very quiet and usually happy. He got especially happy when he sold a book or screenplay or something. He was patriotic. He was a great cook. As a dad, they don’t come any better. He had integrity that you wouldn’t believe. If he shook hands on something, that was it, which got him into lots of trouble, financially, in Hollywood.
“People seem to think all the stories my father wrote were true, as if they’ve forgotten he was a novelist, a fiction writer.”
Barry Gifford, a writer and publisher instrumental in the resurrection of Jim Thompson’s work, relates that, at the Journal “he lasted barely six months, being fired for alcoholism. Shortly thereafter, his third novel, Nothing More Than Murder, was accepted by Harper’s, who brought out the book in February of 1949. Thompson moved to Los Angeles, working as a re-write man for the Los Angeles Mirror, leaving his family behind in San Diego.
“In 1950 he moved to New York. There he went to work as an editor for Saga, a men’s adventure magazine; but by the following year, he’d lost the job. He then became an editor at what he considered the bottom rung of publishing, the Police Gazette. Soon thereafter, however, Jim Thompson began a long association with Lion Books, a small paperback original publishing company. Lion editor Arnold Hano signed Thompson to a multi-book contract, and Thompson finally sent for his wife and children, who settled with him in Astoria, Queens, New York. Jim Thompson’s sojourn in San Diego was over.”
There’s a recent biography of Thompson, Michael McCauley’s Sleep with the Devil. Sharon Reed doesn’t recommend it. “Our family is very unhappy with the McCauley biography. It’s a piece of junk. Mike put wrong dates, all kinds of inaccuracies. He even got the details of my grandma’s death wrong. There’s a much better biography due out next fall, by Robert Polito. We’ve been helping him with it.”
Somebody wrote, for The New York Review of Books, “Thompson loudly proclaims that he is damned and proud of it.”
I hope the Review fired that nitwit.
Thompson wrote as though fighting his way out of hell by tenaciously seeking the truth. There may never have lived a more ruthlessly honest storyteller. He revealed things about humanity that many of us can’t bear to know. You need guts just to read Jim Thompson. Because he declares and convinces that at some essential level you’re no better than Lou Ford, Joe Wilmot, or Lilly Dillon — a twist of fate, a few betrayals, and you could be them.
Thompson might scare the devil out of you.