Sunday, November 10, 2013

Savage Night (1953)

Here's another Jim Thompson novel that I like very well, and in spite of the clunky way it moves. Again, these stories seem to just come spinning out of Thompson's head, carried by a certain headlong, heedless momentum. Even a moment's thought can deal lethal blows to narrative credibility. But never mind. Thompson's voice somehow keeps things compelling. Savage Night is about the visit that legendary hit man Carl Bigelow makes to a small college town. He is there to kill a man who is about to testify in a case that could hurt the man who has hired Bigelow. This man is known only as "The Man," and even celebrity assassin Bigelow fears him. Bigelow narrates the tale, and though he doesn't take long to reveal his identity, he withholds it awhile. We are thus ushered into a world where, in Alfred Hitchcock's famous formulation—or was it Thompson himself?—"things are not as they seem." That's something Thompson does very well, if occasionally ham-handedly, obviously making things up as he goes along (which novelists do, but you know what I mean). And so legendary hit man Carl Bigelow, who has earned his celebrated reputation with multiple slayings to his credit, each one ordered and paid for, turns out to be an orphan who owes much of his good fortune to a kindly old couple who took him in as a boy. The pressures of cognitive dissonance produce strange results. Savage Night notably has one of Thompson's great moments, which I give you now, when Carl finds himself in early scenes seducing (or seduced by) Ruthie, the maid who is missing a leg. He goes into detail:
I looked, and closed my eyes quickly. But I couldn't keep them closed.
It was a baby's foot. A tiny little foot and ankle. It started just above the knee joint—where the knee would have been if she had one—a tiny little ankle, not much bigger around than a thumb; a baby ankle and a baby foot.
The toes were curling and uncurling, moving with the rhythms of her body...
"C-Carl... Oh,
C-Carl!" she gasped.
After a long time, what seemed like a long time, I heard her saying, "Don't. Please don't, Carl. It's a-all right, so—so, please, Carl... Please don't cry any more—"
End of chapter.

In case it's not at the library.

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