Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Swell-Looking Babe (1954)

I'm not sure what it says that one of the most typical and evocative titles concocted by Jim Thompson serves a story that reminds me more of minor keys in Theodore Dreiser and especially An American Tragedy. Oh yes, there's a glancing thread of incest, and sure, it's no doubt the ritzy hotel setting and the ambitious bellboy that puts me in mind of Dreiser. This is more of a caper story, which I find little more appealing here than I do when I find them in the movies. The swell-looking babe referenced in the title, and a good many other characters, harbor secrets. Our job is to read the novel until we find them out. The two places where Thompson seems most engaged are the details of the caper, with its complicated mess of betrayals, which is central to the story at hand, and the Freudian / Oedipal tensions between our hero the bellboy and his father, which is not. It's something like the stage act where multiple plates are set spinning atop of thin dowels. Busy busy. I kind of get the sense someone might have suggested Thompson try a proper beginning, middle, and end because so much attention is given to the plot. He really seems to have something he wants to say about the love between a mother and son but it's beside the caper point. The result feels muddled and belabored and often not that interesting. But it's still capable of the classic Thompson style—brusque, crazy, headlong. The image of the swell-looking babe is powerful and strange, even if her role is ultimately mundane and she's wasted. As for Dusty Rhodes, the bellboy, he's fine, another standard-issue Thompson figure—wise, underemployed, and desperate. The story is told third-person but it is so far inside Rhodes's head I kept being surprised it wasn't first-person. So, overall, a lesser Jim Thompson, a little mechanical and unsatisfying. But good enough, and interesting enough in the way it opened the door into the next one, as he evidently decided to start putting the monster female figures that haunt and devil his work right into the titles of the novels.

In case it's not at the library.

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