Friday, June 25, 2010

The Killer Inside Jim Thompson

WITH the film adaptation of Michael Winterbotton’s The Killer Inside Me opening in Los Angeles today, I turned to the author's biographer for insight into this very complicated pulp figure. If there is a better biography of an American writer than Robert Polito’s Savage Art, I’ve not read it. (The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award.)

Polito’s book describes Thompson as a “profoundly alienated man’’ who belonged to the Communist party in the ’30s, worked in oil fields and ran with the underworld during Prohibition. Thompson, he writes, produced work that seems congruent with the early rock n roll of Elvis and Little Richard, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the films of Nicholas Ray.

Polito – a poet who heads the graduate writing program at the New School -- and I spoke in the context of Winterbottom’s adaptation, which I write about here. What follows are excerpts from our discussion.

Q: Let’s start out by framing Jim Thompson in literary history.

A: I very much see Thompson as the leading writer of the second generation of crime writers, along with David Goodis and Patricia Highsmith. The shift from the first generation – the Hammett/ Chandler generation – is the shift from the detective to the criminal as the focus of the books. Thompson offers us the most complicated structures, especially in his first-person novels: The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, Pop. 1280. They’re as experimental as anything in American fiction at that moment.

Q: What’s the structure in Killer?

A: That’s Lou Ford’s voice – the way he treats the people in Carter City, with his mix of clichés. He’s mistreating the reader the same way he mistreats the good citizens of Center City.

Q: He’s a classic unreliable narrator in Nabokov’s sense, and very conscious – like a certain kind of novelist – that life is a performance.

A: After working with Thompson on two films, Stanley Kubrick directed a Nabokov adaptation. [Lolita.] Kubrick was fascinated with that kind of dangerous, repellent, charming narrator.

Q: Thompson’s collaborations with Kubrick – The Killing and Paths of Glory – were unhappy experiences for him. And directors, especially American directors, have not had much luck adapting Thompson’s books.

A: Some of it comes from the refusal of those directors to take on the voice of the main characters, which reduces the novels to their violence and action. You have to be willing to take on those weird structures, and the weirdness around the edges.

Q: Do you feel the same way about Winterbottom’s take on The Killer Inside Me?

A: There’s a lot to like about the film – starting with the performances. Casey Affleck if terrific. And the music is terrific. But I was disappointed by the absence of energy or thought in going into what makes the book exciting: Ford’s voice and the way he tells the story. Ford controls your perceptions in the novel, and you read under and around the unreliability and the slipperiness. But it’s filmed too much like the book was written in the third person.

Godard in his prime could have made a great Killer Inside Me.

Q: Those last years, in LA, sound pretty sad and did not produce great novels. Was it mostly the drinking?

A: He was distracted in a very serious way by the movies and the prospect of making a living from the movies.

And he suffered from a total alleviation of the censorship he had worked under. Now Thompson could say anything rather than accomplish it through subterfuge. That had allowed Thompson to write on all cylinders. The Killer Inside Me was an allegory for the kind of pulp novel Thompson was writing: You think you’re reading one kind of novel, and you’re reading another. When you have to slip something by the official channels, it enforces subtlety and experimental art.

Q: In Savage Art, you talk about the fact that these novels, though pulp fiction, were actually taken seriously by sharp-eyes readers and critics.

A: Hell of a Woman had reviews comparing him to Celine and Joyce – Jim Thompson was appreciated in his lifetime. He was getting words like "experimental" attached to him before he died. It’s like early rock n roll: It was meant to be disposable, and then it wasn’t.