Jim Thompson on Verdon Nebraska and farming for the future

Jim Thompson wrote deep, dark, violent, murderous noir, and then sometimes he wrote something very close to a love song to small towns, to farmers, to states like Nebraska that never get much love from anyone at all. At least not in print. Heed the Thunder is a number of things, but this is what I loved about it (not so much like King Blood, which brings these two together in a meditation on frontier and race violence).

This is a glimpse down a street I shall never see, homes I can’t walk into and a mix of architecture and old nostalgias in a place I have never been and a community I can only stretch to understand. A critique of capitalism and its creation of debt and its destruction of the soil. Unexpected, at least to me. A lovely reminder too, of the European traditions of thinking forward to future generations.

The road down which he drove was lined with houses which bore somewhat the same resemblance to each other as children with the same mother but different sires. There were New England houses, rich with gables and shutters; middle-Eastern houses with shingled turrets; porticoed southern houses. There were even one or two houses which showed chinked-in logs in their facades, which were, purely, except for their ambiguous additions, Western.

They were all different, and all alike. Whatever the home state or homeland that had inspired them, necessity and conservatism had forced them into a definite if elastic pattern. Roofs were strong, anchored and angled to defeat the wind. Paint had been applied generously and generously maintained; and colors ran mostly to blue and yellow and brown. Porches were either closed in or adaptable to closing. Foundations were thick and deep, and frequently extended a fractions of an inch outward from the house proper. Like a burial mound, at the rear of each residence was the grassy, cemented, or bricked hump of a cyclone hole. Nothing was flamboyant. To build markedly better than your neighbor was bad taste; it would create talk, arouse envy, and mark you with the mortal sin of extravagance. To build shoddily was as bad. In these close-knit communities, little of the inside and none of the outside of a man’s home was his castle. Erring in judgment, one might remodel or rebuild, but to do so was to repent before a public that would never forget.

To the outsider, the street might appear unchanging, but not to Sherman Fargo. The Methodist preacher’s wife had picked the grapes from her arbor. The gate at the Widow Talley’s place was hanging on one hinge. (Some of these dudes had probably probably worn it out.) Doc Jones was digging– (36)

Beyond his extensive descriptions of architecture and its relation to a small town community? A remarkable grasp of farming, of philosophy, of debt and capitalism, of the destruction of the land that would bring us to where we sit today amidst climate crisis. All of it written into a short dialogue between a German farmer and a salesman.

But I am not like the others, in this way: I do not make a practice of farming from one year to the next… Now, you say next year will be good for wheat. Maybe you are right—”

“It’s my sincere opinion, Mr. Deutsch, that this will be the biggest—”

“So. And maybe you are right. Maybe next year will be bigger, too, and the next, and so on for ten years. I plant wheat for ten years and every year I make big money and what do I have at the end of it? Nothing.”

“Nothing? How do you figure—”

“I would have no farm. The soil would not stand it. Now, you say you are not implying that I should plant wheat fo; ten years, but there is the principle, you see. The temptation to grab the immediate profit. And I cannot farm that way because I know it is wrong. I have a crop-rotation plan, and that is what I go by. That plan extends one hundred and sixty years into the future.”

The salesman so far forgot his tact that he guffawed. Or, perhaps, be believed that the farmer was joking with him.

“A hundred and sixty years!” he laughed. “Why, you won’t even be here then.”

The farmer nodded, slowly, staring at him. “That is right, Mr. Simpson. I will not be here.”

Simpson reddened. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It was just kind of—uh—so funny—”

“Yes, I suppose it is to show any thought for the people of one hundred and sixty years from now—our great grand-children and their children, shall we say.”

“Well, uh—”

“But look at it this way, Mr. Simpson. Suppose I merely plan to exhaust my land during my own and my children lifetime. It will be getting worse and worse all the time we are living from it, will it not? It will not go bad all at once. When we have lived half our lives, we shall only be able to take half as much from it as we could at the beginning.

“I guess you’re right about that.”

“Do you ever read any of the bulletins of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Simpson?”

“well, sure,” lied the salesman, “I’ve read some of ’em.”

“There is one on dry-land farming in the United States—you should get hold of it. According to this bulletin, the farmer in this country can expect to receive a return on his vestment of about 3 per cent a year. That is from crops, livestock, everything. . .”

Simpson laughed again. He saw no possibility of making a e, and he was getting tired.

“Three per cent!” he scoffed. “Why, Mr. Deutsch, I can ow you farmers right in my territory that cleaned up—.”

“But this is for every year,” the German interrupted, ently. “The average for the bad and the good years. And I think it is a little bit high. It does not sound like a great deal, ut over a period of forty years it amounts to about sixty thousand dollars on an investment such as mine. And in one hundred and sixty years it amounts to almost one quarter of a million dollars—and this land will still be earning its 3 per cent one hundred and sixty years from now. . . But I am getting away from my point. If my land, at its flush, earns only 3 per cent, what will its earnings be over a period of forty years if its life is only that? About 1 per cent, eh—less than enough to exist on. And what will be the position of my children and theirs in this valley?” Simpson put the lines back around his neck and laid his hands to the plow handles. “I’ve certainly enjoyed this talk,” he declared. “I think it’s about time I was getting back to town, though.” Deutsch smiled, then laughed openly. (136-137)

He called and they came into the mirror of the window, seemingly fighting for remembrance even as he fought to remember them. They came brashly and shy, swaggering and halting and prissing, laughing, smiling, frowning, grimacing. Good, bad, and indifferent: the real people, the people of the land. And then they were gone, the last of them; and as he burned them forever into his memory, he pressed his face against the window and fought to hold the land:

The land. The good land, the bad land, the fair-to-middling land, the beautiful land, the ugly land, the homely land, the kind and hateful land; the land with its tall towers, its great barns, its roomy houses, its spring-pole wells, its shabby sheds, its dugouts; the land with its little villages and towns, its cities and great cities, its blacksmith shops and factories, its one-room schools and colleges; the honky land, the Rooshan land, the German land, the Dutch and Swede land, the Protestant and Catholic and Jewish land: the American land—the land that was slipping so surely, so swiftly, into the black abyss of the night. (297)

Thompson, Jim ([1946] 1991) Heed the Thunder. New York: Black Lizard.

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