Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Kill-Off (1957)

The Kill-Off is Jim Thompson's second bite (at least) at the As I Lay Dying apple, along with The Criminal. I associate the narrative strategy—multiple first-person stories by different characters from chapter to chapter—with the 1930 Faulkner novel, which now that I think of it has its own sources in the epistolary tradition of literature, alternating personal communications of different characters, which of course goes way back: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a very fine example, and that's from the 18th century. But taking it out of the realm of letter-writing, perhaps prompted by influences of cinema with its cut-and-paste editing, Faulkner (or someone else?) came up with something that proved popular with noir writers of the '30s and '40s, and here is Thompson doing it again. Indeed, it feels like a carefully refined approach to the strategy. No character gets more than one chapter, for example. Thompson attempts (almost comically sometimes) to strike and maintain a specific voice for each one. But his two basic modes predominate: a foul surly turn of character mood whose foundations are beyond our ken alternating with a kind of prissy (and hilarious) formality. It is the usual candy store of taboos: alcoholism, adultery, miscegenation, incest, murder, rape, de facto slavery. Too bad there's not a fetish involving kitchen sinks. A lot of The Kill-Off was not convincing to me, notably the racial situation. It's set in a New England resort town for no particular reason. Characters have names like Pete Pavlov and Marmaduke "Goofy" Gannder. Still, I have an intense curiosity about one thing: What did people spending the original 35 cents make of these novels? If I had a time machine I'd like to travel back to 1957 or 1958 and strike up a conversation with someone I saw reading it. I should say the plot for The Kill-Off is reasonably well worked out. But the cast is so uniformly grotesque it's hard to care about or even follow all that's going on. A rich old woman sucking the energy off of a much younger man, a corrupt doctor and his mysterious maid Hattie, random nightclub shenanigans, prostitutes, surly jazz players, surly carnival moguls. Where do you put your hat down? Don't forget the weird structure! As for the title, it has something to do with Pillsbury Bake-Off competitions, which were popular in the '50s.

In case it's not at the library.

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