Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

Kindle edition, published by Mulholland Books, 2011.
Mulholland now has 9 of Jim Thompson's available as e-books and they intend to make 25 of Thompson't 29 books available in this format.
Pop. 1280 was originally published in 1964. The top cover is from the Mulholland Books edition. The one below is from the my well-worn 1990 Vintage/Black Lizard edition.

I relied on Robert Polito's Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson for background for this post.

Psychotics, criminals, people you really don't want to take an interest in you, Jim Thompson (1906-1977) captured them all in his stories. You don't read Jim Thompson expecting a happy ending. What you get is existential nihilism. The man could write noir and his impact is still felt. There is a nod to Pop. 1280 in James Sallis' Cypress Grove (read closely, you might miss it). Gloria Denton in Megan Abbott's Queenpin has the same noir genes as Thompson's Lilly Dillon in The Grifters. There is even a band named Pop. 1280 (think apocalyptic punk).

Pop. 1280 is the first person narrative of Nick Corey, the high sheriff of Potts County in an unnamed Western state in the early 1900s. Most of the action takes place in and around Pottsville, the county seat, with a population of 1,280 souls—down to 1,273 by the end.

For the first 6 chapters we see Nick as a harmless, lazy, spineless, aww shucks oaf who gets by with a joke, a slap on the back, and not making a fuss. Nick says he figures he has it made " long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'." The tone is light, even humorous.

Nick is also a man with prodigious appetites. A typical meal might be "...half a dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy." He never describes himself but the reader  can't help but imagine Nick as a big if not obese man.

His other appetite is women.
"I'll tell you something about me. I'll tell you for true. That's one thing I never had no shortage of. I was hardly out of my shift—just a barefooted kid with my first pair of boughten britches—when the gals started flinging it at me. And the older I got, the more of 'em there were." 
Despite, or perhaps because of this, Nick ends up blackmailed into marrying Myra, a horrible woman who brought her half-witted peeping tom "brother" Lennie to the marriage with her. This doesn't stop Nick from having an intimate relationship with Rose Hauck, a woman married to the town drunk and neer-do-well, Tom Hauck. And he'd really like to get back together with Amy, the woman he was going to marry until Myra came along.

When the story opens, Nick has problems —"And yet I was worried. I had so many troubles that I was worried plumb sick." His immediate problem is the disrespect he gets from two pimps in town but he is also worried about the coming election and, of course, his women problems. He's off to see Ken Lacey, the sheriff a couple of counties down the river, who has given him "valuable" advice in the past. Ken is a condescending bully but Nick is at his toadying best when he asks Ken how to handle the pimps.

Nick's approach to problem solving is covered in a dark but often humorous way and it is a treat to see how Thompson moves the story along.

Thompson's first major success was The Killer Inside Me, a dark, violent, misogynistic first person narrative. His last was Pop. 1280. They have similarities but I think Thompson found his finest expression in Pop. 1280. It might be close to the perfect noir story.

Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey both represent Thompson's love/hate relationship with his own father. "Big Jim" Thompson was a successful lawman in the Oklahoma territory. He was a big man who, like Lou Ford and Nick Corey, presented a good old boy front to the world. He was also crooked, fleeing to Mexico after being caught embezzling jail funds. Despite his down home, country boy manner, Thompson had a first rate mind. One of his favorite tricks was to play along with someone treating him like an ignorant redneck then hit them with learned expositions on medicine, history, and philosophy. Both Lou Ford and Nick Corey have a sharp intelligence that they are careful to hide. As Nick says "who wants a smart sheriff?". These two stories show Thompson's contempt for his father. Polito points out that the title, Pop. 1280, is probably a sly reference to his "Pop" Thompson.

Pop. 1280 is beautifully and subtly constructed. The reader sees Nick drop a word here, nudge someone there to bring his plans together. Often something Nick says or thinks doesn't register until  later in the story. I've read Pop. 1280 many times and I still managed to find something new as I prepared this post.

Nick Corey is psychotic but where Lou Ford is cruel and sadistic, Nick is a manipulator. He believes he has a messianic mission to fulfill and knows he needs to arrange his environment to continue his mission. His mission – "to punish the heck out of people for bein' people. To coax 'em into revealin' theirselves , an' then kick the crap out of 'em." There is some violence but nothing approaching the scale of The Killer Inside Me.

Pop. 1280 is also a savage attack on corruption, racism, mistreatment of children, and the treatment of the working man. At one point,  Nick neatly skewers a detective from a fictional agency clearly meant to represent the Pinkerton's.  About the railway strike of 1886,
"Now, by golly, that really took nerve," I said. "Them railroad workers throwin' chunks of coal at you an' splashin' you with water, and you fellas without nothin' to defend yourself with except shotguns an' automatic rifles! Yes sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!"
Nick is most vulnerable and sympathetic when talks about his own childhood and the abuses against children and women. Thompson does something you might not think possible, that maybe one of his psychotics isn't all bad, that maybe soes do some good. As long as you don't become part of his plan, that is.

Pop. 1280 is my favorite Jim Thompson novel. It's one I read at least once a year with the same enjoyment as the first time I encountered it and I highly recommend it.

Film adaptation:
Bertrand Tavernier took Pop. 1280 and set it in colonial French West Africa in the 1930s. He called it Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate). It is an excellent adaptation and faithful to the main story line. Tavernier's commentary on noir is a reason to purchase the DVD.