Tag Archives: Jim Thompson

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.

King Blood, Jim Thompson’s Tulsa

This contains the best goddamn description of Tulsa, Oklahoma you might ever find:

Tulsa lochopocas. A clanning place of the Osages. It stood at the twin-forks of the Arkansas, near the confluence of the Verdigris; a center of commerce (in so far as there was any) and a conference site long before white man ever set foot on the American continent. Tulsa lochopocas. Tulsey town. Tulsa. Critch had liked the looks of it from the moment he stepped off the train from Kansas City. It was a higgledy-piggledy kind of place, with streets running casually whatever way they damned pleased, and buildings sprawling and crawling all over hell and back in the ages-old pattern of quick money. It was his kind of town, he had thought. An easy-money town. A railroad and river town, a cotton and cattle town. Furs, lumber, foodstuffs. All flowed into and through Tulsa, an endless stream of increment. And now there was even oil, for prospectors with a spring-pole rig had drilled through the red-clay soil to a respectable gusher. In these surroundings, and without refining facilities, it had little commercial value as yet, being almost as worthless as some of those minerals you heard about only in books; uranium, for example. But never mind. There was plenty of money without oil, and the place virtually shouted the news that here one could do whatever he was big enough to do. Thus, Critch saw Tulsa. Correctly, he saw it so. What he did not see was something indefinable, something that far wiser and better men had failed to see at first glimpse of Tulsa (Tulsey Town,  tulsa lochopocas). Men who nominally were big enough to do whatever they attempted.

Even better than that:

More than two hundred years after her off-handed brushing-off of the French trappers and hunters, Tulsa was telling Wall Street to take its underwriting and financing and get hence (or words to that effect). The House of Morgan, et al., were amused rather than annoyed. The notion that an upstart Oklahoma town could itself raise the billions necessary for the proper exploitation of its oil resources was simply laughable. And yet… the upstart town _did_ raise those billions. Not only for itself but for others. And in the end, Wall Street was forced to admit that it had a rival. It remained first, in the big money capitals of the world, as a financier of the oil industry. But little Tulsa – or, rather, not-so-little Tulsa – ranked second to it. So there you were, then. There Tulsa was. A friendly town, an amiable live-and-let live town. A proud town, which liked doing things its own way and knew just what to do with those who would have it otherwise.

Go Tulsa, a town too little described in the annals of literature. sphere_king_bloodIn most other ways, however, Jim Thompson’s King Blood (1973) is offensive and fairly horribly over-the-top in its racism and misogyny. Usually in such accounts by whites of the West, Indians and Mexicans have stony black eyes, impassive faces, they are opaque and unknowable. This book almost makes you wish they had stayed that way for Thompson. At the same time, I confess, it is an interesting exploration of that intersection between pulp and race and manifest destiny. As a general fan of pulp covers I confess I find this grotesque. Where the fuck did they get that photograph. The actual snippets of history in here, though, are hell of interesting. Especially given that Jim Thompson’s father features in it as Sheriff James Sherman Thompson — also known familiarly as Jim Thompson. He’s typing away at an old typewriter when we first come across him. I don’t know why that gave me a shiver. I suppose it is not strange that as Thompson neared the end of his life, he should return to the land and times of his father. It makes the long author’s note near the end a little less incongruous, even stuck as it is in the flow of the text. It identifies the actual historical figures  — the Marshals, the murderesses, the politics of Oklahoma territory and Sheriff Thompson’s big fall from grace tumbling the family fortunes down with him. It admits that everything else — all that mixture of Apache and Creek and African-American blood on the land where Ike King reigns supreme and Apache and poor English is the lingua franca and a strange mixture of violence and hate rules day — all that is invented. What a strange invention though. I hated most things about it, hated the way the ‘squaws’ spoke, the mistaken writing of chango as chongo, the foul descriptions of Geronimo, the twisted ‘Indian’ codes, the scene of torture (that somehow inspired the publisher to chose that cover) and etc etc. Only the history lessons kept me reading, like this one of how the land of Ike’s kingdom was taken and held:

Arlie, Boz and Old Ike had all used their right to stake out homesteads of one-hundred-and-sixty acres. In addition, some fifth of Ike’s lighter-skinned Apache followers wearing city clothes had staked out claims of similar size. Like the Kings, however, they had not made the Run, the race for homesteads, but had ‘soonered’ the land, putting their stakes down on territory which Old Ike had held from the start. ‘You know what I mean, Critch? You savvy “sooner”?’ Critch nodded his understanding. A sooner was a person who slipped across the border ahead of the starter’s gun. In years to come, it was to become an affectionate second-name for Oklahoma – that is, ‘the Sooner state’ – as was Jayhawk to become a nickname for Kansas and Cornhusker for Nebraska. ‘O’ course,’ Arlie continued, ‘there was a lot of fuss about it. But I reckon you know it’d take more’n fuss to move Paw, an’ lucky for him he had the political pull to ride the storm through.’ ‘Good for him,’ Critch murmured. ‘But you’ve only accounted for a few thousand acres, Arlie. How did he recover the rest of his holdings?’ ‘With money,’ Arlie shrugged. ‘I mean, he bought up the homesteaders’ claims. A lot of ’em didn’t have the money to carry them through a bad year, an’ had to sell to Paw. The others – well, they got kind of nervous with so many Indians livin’ around ’em. Got the idea, somehow, that their scalps might wind up on a pole if they didn’t sell. So – ‘ ‘I see,’ Critch said. ‘I think I get the picture.’ ‘Now, don’t get no wrong ideas,’ his brother protested. ‘Maybe they had a leetle pressure put on ’em, but they all got a fair price for their claims. More’n they were worth in most cases. You wouldn’t remember, bein’ away so long, but a heap of the land out here just ain’t fit for nothing but grazin’.

A leetle pressure. Right…. It’s short, so I plowed through to the end, seeking that first promise of Tulsa. Never found it. Liked this though:

I doubt that there lives a man with soul so dead that he doesn’t pray for deliverance from anonymity.

And this:

What does happen to men who can find no other path for themselves than the one occupied by the juggernaut of an onrushing civilization?

Still puzzling over old Ike’s background, how exactly he was connected to the Trail of Tears, the mystery of his whiteness (or lack of it), which is curious in itself.  Curious too about the novel ending there, and the rather spectacular death-by-natural-cause of both Ike and Tepaha, the strange epilogue of sex and accommodation. Above all I’m curious (and angry, and saddened) about this strange cult of violence grown so deep and large that it blots all other human emotions out, all possibilities of cooperation, camaraderie, solidarity — forget about kindness or compassion. It’s so closely tied here  with the expansion of whites across a continent taking everything they could. Despite that underlying fact, it is more obviously associated with the Apaches and the suspect blood of the Kings, the ‘uncivilised’ nature of these savages with their childlike and violently innocent women and their opaque codes of honour. White people got a lot of mileage imposing their own crimes and deepest fears on the peoples they were doing their best to destroy. Tulsa was good at this on both fronts, as Thompson writes:

Tulsa knew just what to do about the Crazy Snake rebellion, the last of the Indian uprisings. She knew just what to do – and she did it – when race riots threatened to destroy the city. She… But that is getting ahead of the story.

So it’s not hard to believe that if there is a good man here it is the Marshal, attempting to impose the ‘honour of law’ on an unruly territory. Marshals and Sheriffs are always (almost always I guess, perhaps, exceptions might have existed) the bad guys in my book, they represent the violence of the state supporting genocide and one of the largest land grabs in known history. Telling that Thompson in the end, however obliquely, comes down on their side, even though he’s capable of recounting with some sorrow the injustice of the Trail of Tears.