Remembrances

A history of liquidated collections

I used to be a big ol’ book collector.  I had thousands.  But my collection has been whittled down over the years to just about one hundred books, mostly reference books.  I hadn’t really considered blogging about this change until, following my previous post about Jim Thompson, a friend asked if he could borrow my copy of The Killer Inside Me.   But I don’t have a copy anymore.

I had the entire collection of Black Lizard Press Jim Thompson novels, not to mention many other Black Lizard editions.  The collection took about three years to accumulate. I dragged it with me for three or four years, through two cross-country moves, and then one day I decided to liquidate the whole thing at Moe’s Books.  I didn’t even get trade, just cash money.  Perhaps it was an appropriately noir ending for a series of bleak novels about lust and betrayal, but these were beautiful editions, and there wasn’t really a good reason why I got rid of them.

But there was a reason and, no joking, it had to do with feng shui.  Let me see if I can explain.

The first collection I liquidated was my Stephen King collection.  I did that while I was still in college. Part of growing up, I guess.

Then I graduated from college and got rid of all the college books that had been overflowing my shelves since freshman year.  I made a heck of a lot of money selling those books and maybe got a taste for it.  I don’t know.

When I moved to Montana, I finally pulled the trigger on most of the rest of the books I’d held onto.  And when I moved back, I got rid of just about everything else, except Thompson.

That was supposed to be it.  I had taken the book collection down to the minimum.  I wasn’t going to get rid of anything else.  But then this coworker of mine loaned me her feng shui books.

It turned out the Thompson shelf violated feng shui in two ways: It was my biggest single-author collection, about 30 books in all, and they were collecting a lot of dust and who knows what kind of microorganisms. Worse, these novels are dark, vile rants as hard to forget as they are to put down.  They are guaranteed to leave you disturbed.

And when I learned that having something in your house that collects dust and disturbs you, no matter how beautiful it may be, is the very definition of bad feng shui, I decided to let them go.

Sometimes, like tonight, I get wistful, but as least my house doesn’t look like this.

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Authors

Jim Thompson

Pulp auteur Jim Thompson has been getting a bit of media attention due to today’s release of a film adaptation of “The Killer Inside Me.”  I haven’t seen the movie — and, based on some of the reviews, I may not — but I do want to say a thing or two about Thompson.

First off, he was amazing.  Talking about the guy turns me into a total fanboy.

But it’s not Thompson’s stories that stand out. They are mainly procedural crime with lots of sex and violence (which can be fun, but isn’t all that unique). What makes him is his style and — dare I say it — his insight.  Stephen King described him this way …

The guy was over the top. The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop. There are three brave lets inherent in the forgoing: he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it.

Thompson didn’t write novels, he wrote excoriations of the human condition.  They are hard to read at times, and often flawed in some significant ways, but the writing is always brilliant.  And that just makes his vision that much more horrifying.

There’s a great article about him at the Wall Street Journal in which Barry Gifford says, “He’s just too raw and too graphic for mainstream America.”  (H.R.F. Keating put it a different way: “The great merit of the novels of Jim Thompson is that they are completely without good taste…”)

Interestingly, this is as true today as it was when Thompson was writing fifty years ago.  While many edgy fictions from the same time period seem tame by today’s standards, Thompson is still controversial. Because of this, to my mind, Thompson is a precursor and predictor to writers like Bret Easton Ellis, who has also been getting media attention these days, and Chuck Palahniuk. But Thompson was way more fun.

The WSJ aptly summarizes his 29-novel ouvre like so:

Though written in the 1950s and early ’60s, all of Thompson’s crime novels are a nightmarish reflection of the Depression he grew up in. He created a noirish world of prostitutes, pimps, con artists, gamblers and corrupt lawmen—the last as revenge on a father from whom he was alienated.

While this description is factually true, it leaves out the crucial detail that most of his novels also depict a harrowing and surprisingly believable descent into madness by the narrator, who is always unreliable.  Reading him is like watching a high-wire act.  You keep wondering, is he going to pull this off. And he does, again and again.

I had an interesting conversation with Don Herron about Jim Thompson a few years ago.  I had just taken Herron’s Dashiell Hammett tour and we were sharing beers in a natty sports bar in downtown SF. We were discussing different noir authors and I commented about how impressed I was with Thompson, who I was still discovering at the time.  Herron scoffed, and said that the thing about Thompson was that the starts of his novels were always great, but by the time he got to the end he was drunk. The ends, he said, didn’t make any sense.

I couldn’t disagree more.  I don’t doubt that Thompson was drunk, but his endings are powerful testaments to pulling out all the stops.  He unfailingly finds the most hallucinatory and hideous way to end book after book.  He takes us to that place where the skin has finally been peeled off the insanity and you’re looking at the creature underneath.  These endings transcend the crime genre and enter into something more akin to magic realism … and they are also singularly literary.  The madness of the characters has been written into the very syntax.

Which is precisely why, I suspect, the film versions of his books don’t really work.  But Brian Frazer at Deep-Focus.com has said it better than I could:

It’s impossible to really film The Killer Inside Me. It’s a question of medium — you can’t replicate the book’s suffocating interior monologue, the puffed-up rant and ramble of a serial killer, because as soon as you dramatize the events in question for a movie camera you make them real in a way that they’re not, quite, when they’re still sitting on the page. It’s the old question of show versus tell.

In the case of Jim Thompson, the story has to be told.

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