Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) established him as one of the preeminent practitioners of hardboiled crime fiction. A first-person confession of a small town deputy sheriff going on a murder spree, it is a frightening and gripping novel that earned Thompson the sobriquet “Dimestore Dostoevsky.” Stanley Kubrick, who directed two Jim Thompson screenplays, called it “the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” Thompson followed it up with twelve books in just two years, and later delivered other masterpieces such as The Getaway (1958), The Grifters (1963) and Pop. 1280 (1964). In the middle of that prolific period, Thompson did something that no other hardboiled author ever did. He published a pair of autobiographies: Bad Boy (1953) and Roughneck (1954).
The fact that the autobiographies made it into print is a testament to Thompson’s standing with his editor, Arnold Hano, at the paperback original imprint, Lion Books. Hano later recalled that the books were important to Thompson, which is why they published them. “We cheated on the packaging,” Hano said, “we didn’t scream ‘autobiography’ or ‘nonfiction,’” a practice that continues today. The current Mulholland Books editions list the subject category on the back of the books as “Fiction.” Hano said the books sold, but not as well as the novels.
Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito refers to the pair as a “personal mythology,” the outward Jim Thompson he wanted the world to see, a collection of “blandly charming tall tales.” That is not to say that they paint Thompson in a favorable light. If anything, they bend over backwards to show Thompson as a tough kid, drinking and smoking and hanging around burlesque halls by the time he was thirteen, with greater depravity to come. As Thompson says at the conclusion of chapter one, “I was going to catch hell no matter what I did. I might as well try to enjoy myself.”
At the start of Bad Boy Thompson is six years old. He focuses a lot on his father, who went through a vast array of professions, including sheriff, lawyer, and oil man that often kept him away from the family. Thompson, his mother, and sisters would live with his maternal grandparents during those times, and it’s at his grandparents that we get a Tom Sawyer portrait of the boy. Instead of conning people to whitewash fences, however, Thompson and his cousins were building automobiles out of bicycle parts, and attempting to parachute off the farm’s sixty-foot windmill using bedsheets.
Eventually the family reunifies in Fort Worth, Texas, where, at the age of thirteen, Jim’s grandfather introduces him to the world of burlesque. It is there that he befriends a con man named Allie Ivers, running the kind of short cons that Thompson later wrote about in The Grifters. While Thompson knew an actual con man and mobster in his youth, Polito reports that the Allie Ivers of the autobiographies was a longstanding construct Thompson used, somewhere “between Jimmie’s spectral evil twin and a cartoon devil spitting advice over his left shoulder.” In Bad Boy, Ivers gets Thompson a job as a night bellboy at the Hotel Texas.
Working as a night bellboy is lucrative, in part because a night bellboy furnishes the guests with bootlegged liquor, or prostitutes, or heavier drugs, and gets substantial tips in return. It meant, however, that he is in high school all day, and working at the hotel all night, barely ever sleeping. At eighteen years old, his alcoholic, sleepless living catches up with him, and he “from a purely medical standpoint…should have died.”
After several months of convalescence, he hitchhikes to western Texas, where the weather should be better for his recovering health, and starts working in the oil fields. While working as a salvager, he goes into town one night and gets fined for disturbing the peace. Figuring no one will find him out at his job, he doesn’t pay his fine. Several days later, alone on the salvage site, a deputy shows up.
“’Lived here all my life,’” the deputy says, “’Everyone knows me. No one knows you. And we’re all alone. What do you make o’ that, a smart fella like you?’ …He shifted his feet slightly. The muscles in his shoulders bunched. He took a pair of black kid gloves from his pocket, and drew them on slowly. He smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand.”
Thompson is never quite sure if the threat was real—he ends up going with the deputy and paying his fine—but it scares him badly. He tries to write about that deputy many times over the years, but can never get him right, until finally, years later, in The Killer Inside Me.
After several years in bad situations in the oil fields, Thompson returns to Fort Worth and starts working at the hotel again. Allie Ivers almost immediately gets him mixed up in bootlegging for some of Al Capone’s syndicate men. The whole end sequence of the book is his work as a bootlegger, his plans to cheat the syndicate, and how a police raid that captures his cache of liquor leaves him with no choice but to get out of town with his family because he has no way to pay the syndicate back.
His sister later said that running away from the syndicate never happened, but Polito posits that it was “the only fitting denouement for the “Bad Boy” turned writer manqué Thompson was carving into his personal mythology.”
Roughneck picks up exactly where Bad Boy leaves off, on the run from the syndicate with no money and a car that is literally falling apart. He manages, however, to find a sponsor and enroll in college.
In both Bad Boy and Roughneck a lot of the chapters are formulated like jokes building to a punchline at the end of the chapter:
He works as a night watchman at a funeral home until it’s discovered that he and his co-worker are storing bootleg liquor in the refrigerated cases that hold the bodies.
Allie Ivers convinces him to act as chauffer one night, driving Ivers and his girl to a country club, except when they get there Ivers and his girl are smoking cigarettes in the back of the car, stark naked.
He’s given a test in a library, and doesn’t realize the answers are all in the books on the shelves.
Soon the Depression puts an end to his schooling, and he alternates between a vast variety of jobs and actually riding the rails. While he lives a hard life, it becomes harder for him to depict himself as a hard man. There are too many opportunities to do the wrong thing that his conscience doesn’t allow him to do—a prostitute throwing herself at him repeatedly after he’s already married, a chance to defraud a fraternal order, collecting debts from poor people who really can’t pay. Thompson always chooses the moral action.
Eventually he ends up as the director of the Oklahoma WPA. He doesn’t like playing politics, but he takes great pride in his work there. Tasked with overseeing the writing of a history of the labor movement in Oklahoma, he finds himself in opposition with Washington.
“All my life, it seemed, things had been turning out this way. I would work myself into exhaustion, maintain the most correct of attitudes. Then flukish Fate would take a hand and something preposterous and wholly unrelated would edge into the picture.”
With that self-pitying lament, he loses his job with the WPA. He experiences more ups and downs, moving about the country with his family until he eventually leaves them behind in California and sets out for New York, where he will force a publisher to publish his novels. He convinces a publisher to float him until he writes the book, which he claims he wrote in ten days, culminating in an admission to Bellevue for alcoholism. The book ends with the thirty-five year old Thompson’s book getting accepted just as his father dies.
How true either of the books are is up for debate. Everything in them more or less happened, but as Polito notes, the books are filled with “elisions, caprices, and pulled punches.” Thompson cut all of his communist activities in light of the McCarthyism in which the autobiographies were published. He barely mentions his wife and children. And according to Polito, he actually whitewashes some of his activities. So the question is, are they books worth reading?
If you enjoy your grandfather reminiscing about the old days with tongue in cheek, then there are enough humorous anecdotes here to entertain. The overarching story, however, gets a bit tired, feeling a little like a narrative resume, just a list of jobs. The most surprising thing about the autobiographies, other than the fact that they exist, is how impersonal they are, dealing with outward experiences, and avoiding any of the interiority that his first-person novels are known for. They tell the what of the man, but not the why. They are not a substitute for Polito’s excellent biography, but they give the background against which many of his novels are set. And the novels are what are really worth reading.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ariel S. Winter is the author of The Preserve and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award, and the Macavity Award for his novel The Twenty-Year Death. He is also the author of the children’s picture book One of a Kind, illustrated by David Hitch, and the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. He lives in Baltimore.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Decimated by plague, the human population is now a minority. Robots—complex AIs almost indistinguishable from humans—are the ruling majority. Nine months ago, in a controversial move, the robot government opened a series of preserves, designated areas where humans can choose to live without robot interference. Now the preserves face their first challenge: someone has been murdered.
Chief of Police Jesse Laughton on the SoCar Preserve is assigned to the case. He fears the factions that were opposed to the preserves will use the crime as evidence that the new system does not work. As he digs for information, robots in the outside world start turning up dead from bad drug-like programs that may have originated on SoCar land. And when Laughton learns his murder victim was a hacker who wrote drug-programs, it appears that the two cases might be linked. Soon, it’s clear that the entire preserve system is in danger of collapsing. Laughton’s former partner, a robot named Kir, arrives to assist on the case, and they soon uncover shocking secrets revealing that life on the preserve is not as peaceful as its human residents claim. But in order to protect humanity’s new way of life, Laughton must solve this murder before it’s too late.