Countless novels have celebrated the American Dream and countless more have indicted it. Few novels have explored the American Nightmare like The Grifters. Jim Thompson has been called the most nihilistic writer in American history. In his novels, no one is redeemed, everyone is damned. Even the straight world, which is only briefly mentioned in this novel of criminals, is implicated in corruption. As William Carlos Williams said, in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, get ready for a tour through Hell.
So why read it? Because looking at the shadow side of life is fascinating, and paradoxically illuminating. Because bad characters, as so many have said, are usually more interesting than good ones. Because the plot is relentlessly compelling. Because Thompson is included in the prestigious Library of America. Because he’s Stephen King’s favorite crime writer.
Roy Dillon is a grifter. He rips people off for money without them knowing it. His relations with three women are the center of this story. Lily, his mother, works for the mob. She tries to get Roy to go straight but doesn’t set an overly inspiring example. Carol is hired by Lily to nurse Roy and hopefully marry him. Moira is Roy’s girlfriend. She wants to recruit him for the big con.
Grifting is fascinating to read about. Watching Roy employ the smack, the twenties and the tat, you may stop and say, “What just happened?” The process upends normal channels of thought, flummoxes standard expectations. You may have to read about a grift here twice just to catch how the victim’s being fooled. That’s the point of it. It’s so subtle the mark never suspects he’s been had. In Thompson’s world, Roy’s life is the logical extension of free enterprise. People are there not to be merely exploited but fleeced. The price Roy pays is he can’t trust anyone.
As for Moira, here’s a jeweler describing a stone she’s brought for him to evaluate:
I mean some of the finest filigreed platinum I’ve ever seen. Practically a work of art. But the stones, no. They’re not diamonds, Mrs. Langtry. Excellent imitations, but still imitations.
Thompson’s double use of language provides a description of Moira as well.
This sort of diamond-hard prose is on every page of The Grifters. It comes out of the hard-boiled tradition, especially Raymond Chandler’s writing. This is hard-boiled at its hardest, something delivered from the black hole at the unacknowledged center of America, a country that’s not supposed to exist. It throws off poisoned sparks that will haunt you for a long time.
Submitted by Richard Grooms