Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pop. 1280 (1964)

Jim Thompson published many more novels after Pop. 1280 which I still don't know, but somehow Pop. 1280 feels like the right place for me to stop. In many ways it is the inevitable resolution to his most celebrated and best-known novel, The Killer Inside Me—and in many ways it's much better. Killer is where Thompson hatched the idea of a sociopathic sheriff of a small Texas town who spouts endless clichés and homilies even as he lives the life of a depraved libertine. But I think Pop. 1280 may be where he perfected it. Unlike Killer's Lou Ford, who is vaguely troubled by his behavior and labels it "the sickness," sheriff Nick Corey of Pop. 1280 more accepts it as a given of the human condition. Better him than anyone else, seems to be his basic credo, never doubting for a second that anyone else in his position would be anything else. There's some tendency for Thompson to compress his cynicism into glib incident, for example in the whisper campaign Corey effortlessly launches against his opponent in an upcoming election, working obvious variations on Mark Twain's wonderful story, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." And much of the shocking cruelty of Killer is underplayed in Pop. 1280 too, which I miss. But nowhere is Thompson's worldview so curdled into such an expert latticework of foul human behavior. Sheriff Corey plays it straight always, outside of this narrative, and people just step up and voluntarily treat him wrong, thinking he is a nincompoop. And so, when he takes his various revenges, we are implicated, we are nearly always at least a little on his side, satisfied when as we see him deal out their come-uppances. Even as Nick Corey's veneer of self-serving rationalization is transparent we believe enough in his justifications to minimize any moral concerns we might think to entertain as the action flashes past. Corey's own words to live by, which he repeats over and over, speak exactly to that: "I ain't sayin' you're wrong, but I cain't say you're right, either." The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 also represent a familiar dynamic in many careers of the big ones, and nearly all of them who lived long enough. First there is the moment of great discovery, the raw innovation, and later there is a grand statement consolidation of the gains. Inspiration drives the first, experience the latter. Think of Highway 61 Revisited and "Love & Theft", think of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, think of The Clash and Sandinista! These two books by Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, belong with them.

In case it's not at the library.

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