Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Nothing Man (1954)

Jim Thompson's The Nothing Man features an angry, sarcastic, drunken newspaperman named Brownie, who was castrated in the war, hence "the nothing." His boss at the newspaper was also his commanding officer in the war and Brownie is constantly mocking, needling, and trying to provoke him. As usual, something well to the side of the main events brings the most energy, in this case Brownie's constant caustic spew. Brownie dishes it out constantly, another one of Thompson's hellishly observed cases of foul disposition. The boss takes it from him because he feels sorry for him. At which point, some structural POV problems crop up, which Thompson attempts to deal with using alcoholic blackouts. Well, Thompson's plots tend to be purely incidental anyway, a loose skeleton onto which to drape things. What matters more is how well he manages to burrow into the psychotic mind, or some semblance of it peculiar to him and few others. On that score, The Nothing Man is not among his best. With Thompson, the hope always is for those chilling, clarifying breaks with reality, which connect in significant ways I think with writers like Poe, O'Connor, and Faulkner. In many ways all Thompson springs from the third section of The Sound and the Fury: tethers cut loose, raging with great abandon and almost no reason, and so desperate and vivid it is like staring through the pages. "Writing ecstatically," as Updike said of Nabokov. Well, there's less of that in The Nothing Man—it's good enough but second-tier. The whole impotence thing bores me now, after Faulkner's Sanctuary. With Thompson, I can let that go, along with the disappointing and mechanically happy ending. He's earned the right to fail now and then, even spectacularly, and The Nothing Man is not a failure, it's only entertaining.

In case it's not at the library.

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