Monday, March 18, 2013

Savage Art (1995)

The thing I like best about Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson is the light it sheds on Thompson's work. What I consider the best of that work—A Hell of a Woman, say—is not necessarily as celebrated as a few, and one in particular: The Killer Inside Me. Granted, Savage Art is a biography, and Polito's critical assessments have to be extracted. But until this I had flailed away at reading Thompson without direction, and often disappointed. Thompson's catalog runs to 30 or better titles, and there are some fairly stinkers in the mess. I know because I read two of them—The Alcoholics and The Criminals, bought for their titles obviously. I was thus happy to see Polito dismiss them quickly, which had the effect of making me more inclined to believe him generally. And he's a good writer in his own right. Thompson lived a singularly depressing life, but Polito's own hard-bitten voice keeps things moving along. Lots of interesting stuff about Thompson and his life, of course. I wasn't surprised but still fascinated to learn that Thompson was a binge writer, locking himself away for intense bursts of work. His best usually has that magical quality of first drafts that somehow came out just right (see also: Sherwood Anderson, Philip K. Dick). It's so rare and unusual it's something to appreciate itself (for all his reputation for that kind of thing, for example, I think Jack Kerouac managed it only once, with The Subterraneans). Polito has also proved his critical bona fides with the two great Library of America volumes, Crime Novels: American Noir, so one always feels in good hands, and Jim Thompson is obviously right in his wheelhouse. Thompson himself is about what you would expect him to be from reading the novels, a leathery old drunk with a marked edge of desperation. A faintly Bukowski type of character, alcoholic and impoverished for much of his life. All that anxiety in the novels had to come from somewhere, of course, and Polito neatly catalogs it from start to finish. I thought the saddest part of Thompson's life, the way Polito tells it, was that Thompson always felt strongly that his work was not recognized for what it is, Stanley Kubrick's late interest notwithstanding. Thompson always held out hope for it—how could he not? At this point, I'm not sure you can overstate his position to the second half of the 20th century, in terms of the fascination for human depravity that wears a crime fiction mask. Polito and this book steered me to most of my current favorites by Thompson. For that alone I love it.

In case it's not at the library.

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