Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Hell of a Woman (1954)

I tried to write about this one before, but it was awhile ago so here's another go. If not Jim Thompson's best, A Hell of a Woman is at least on the short list of his best. By nicknaming his main character here "Dolly"—otherwise a bill collector named Frank Dillon—I think Thompson makes clear that no one, least of all himself, is immune to the impulses of perversion, at the right time and place. Our hero Dolly breathes and swims in an effluvia of rot and corruption that is distinctly American—money and sex are what you get by swindling and manipulating, and a good day's work by a smart operator should net plenty of both. The reward, at the long day's end of work, is drinking and oblivion. Dolly doesn't want to be here anyway, he's just too cowardly to kill himself. The last chapter is his way of saying goodbye. The "self-destructive tendency" finally brings Dolly to its inevitable deserts. Along the way he thinks he has found the ideal woman—a hell of a woman, deeply victimized and passive. A case study in learned helplessness. But decidedly innocent, and even pure, if defiled. But of course Dolly can't even hang on to that—among other reasons, for his own stupidity, and the sin of vanity, believing himself to be the smartest person in town and on the planet too. As his dreams slip away and his doom is realized he cracks apart into strands of narrative resolution and implodes in front of our eyes. It's crudely Joycean at that point but works. Even more so as a dime novel paperback original. What in the world did people think? Printer error, I suspect. A couple of chapters are framed up as chapters from a memoir ... or something ... but it is otherwise straightforward lurid steamy pulp. A bill collector is cheating everybody in sight and getting away with nothing. A mysterious girl and her elderly aunt are conducting a prostitution operation out of their house. Couples bicker and fight and get drunk, and then the fights get worse. Why would anyone want to read such things in the first place? The horror of finding a calculating, intelligent mind and persuasive worldview behind it is almost impossible to overstate. A Hell of a Woman is one of the most chilling things I've ever encountered.

In case it's not at the library.

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