The Grifters (1963) Written by Jim Thompson
A shockingly compassionate piece of crime-fiction from the Godfather of amoral tales populated by sociopathic anti-heroes, The Grifters is the closest a Jim Thompson novel comes to a tale of redemption: Can a young man raised by a frequently absent mother who would rather abandon her child, who has found a life as a con-man, break free of the grift? Thompson was masterful at detailing the inner workings of his characters’ minds but often this was to show the inhuman deviousness of cold-blooded killers; here Thompson examines the thoughts of a man questioning, without intending on introspection, the very nature of his being when the distant past comes crashing into the present.
Roy Dillon’s vomiting bile outside a shop where his quick-change con earned him a baseball bat in the gut. The cruising cops take him for an afternoon drunk until they see his credit cards while he rifles through his wallet for his license. They take their leave and Dillon drives off just as soon as he can stop retching. Appearing to be a respectable man, holding down a straight job and living in a modest apartment in an unassuming Los Angeles neighborhood has been the key to his success. Con men find themselves constantly on the move, splitting town as soon as their faces become too recognizable. Dillon has found that he can stick to the short grift working from a central location and spare the expenses of life on the lam.
Except he’s dying, and doesn’t even know it. Internal hemorrhaging has him writhing in bed, unable to eat or sleep, and even a visit from Moira Langtry can’t dispel the nagging suspicion that something was seriously wrong. It wasn’t so much that they had a relationship as they had an understanding– she was an independent woman who didn’t need to be tied down, he was a swindler who couldn’t afford to be exposed. They speak mostly from discarded B-movie scripts, using a refusal to communicate to constantly challenge one another.
It takes a surprise visit from Lilly Dillon, his estranged mother, or the closest thing he had to one. She had come up the hard way, marrying young to escape the backwoods poverty and deprivation of her childhood, only to subject her son to a more urban variety of neglect as she elbowed her way through the seedy underbelly of Baltimore. In town on business, working the west coast tracks for an east coast mob, she mixes business with pleasure by tempering Roy’s long-standing and carefully metered resentment by saving his life.
And of course Lilly and Moira take an instant dislike towards one another. They’re roughly the same age and they’ve both graduated from the school of hard-knocks. No one’s an angel except for the Jewish immigrant Carol Roberg, a struggling nurse, who becomes a pawn for Lilly to block Moira’s grip on Roy, insisting on his staying with mom during an extended period of recuperation with a pretty young nurse around all day to feed him ice-cream. So he lays in bed torn between a sense of morality and desire, ruminating on his past and the cold war years between mother and son, wondering what exactly Moira wants from him, and how soon he can shake everyone off and return to the grift.
Usually Thompson charts the course of one character, providing background details sparingly and as prelude to something so unexpectedly brutal or senseless that it demands a little understanding. The Grifters is more sympathetic, offering each of the four characters a chance to tell their story to explain how they’ve come to find themselves in this situation. This isn’t to suggest that he offers his creations any excuses or allowances, only that he makes an extra effort to humanize them as much as possible. More atypical is the amount of internal wrangling her permits Roy, who slowly begins to come to terms with the prospect of changing the course of his life and finds that he might actually welcome going straight. Never before have I seen one of Thompson’s characters so torn between good and evil, struggling to improve and grow away from the very nature of their being.
Such internal dialogue leaves less room for the acts of violence which are what Thompson’s books are known for; this is the least hard-nosed of his pulp novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. What remains is his unerring ear for the snappy exchange, the carefully guarded conversations between two people who are constantly trying to outdo one another. Each person also has their own unique voice, quite a feat for someone juggling four personalities while banging on the keyboard. There’s more depth to the story as well with undercurrents constantly threatening to bumrush the stage. Lilly finds herself squaring off with confused emotions at her suddenly playing the mom which she struggles to smother as she asserts control over her successfully criminal and smug offspring; Moira’s worn thin by desperation and clinging to any opportunity to keep her head above water, haunted by the wasted years already spent playing this game. Carol’s haunted past is far more tragic than anyone else’s but she tries to shake it off so that she can make her way in this new world, lost in a foreign culture and marked as an outsider. And Roy? Will Roy find his passion for conning people losing lustre to the straight and narrow world of sales management? Will he continue dancing with the confident and beguiling Moira or cradle the lost and fragile Carol? Can he ever let go of his childhood and the suffering caused by a mother fourteen years his senior? Will anyone be redeemed?
A question Jim Thompson probably asked himself in between bouts with the bottle. The Grifters was published well after he had made a name for himself, having written almost twenty books the preceding decade but still broke and thirsty. He had grown up the son of a rambling man, a disgraced Sheriff who fled the country from embezzlement charges and ended up working the Texas oil-feilds. Young Thompson grew up making tips in hotels running liquor and drugs for guests and occasionally writing true crime reports for papers. A short stint at the University of Nebraska later he was working on his first books but found little audience appreciation. He began writing pulp to pay the bills, and continued writing freelance for papers until he was blacklisted for his short-lived membership in the Communist Party. In the midst of his fruitful 50’s period he moved to Hollywood and wrote two screenplays for Stanley Kubrick, The Killing and Paths of Glory, but received little credit and little career. He spent most of his later years writing cheap novelizations or television treatments to raise money. By the 1970’s he was washed up, living on royalties from books selling better overseas than on anything he could raise from an honest day and the kindness of famous admirers. He died in 1977 at the age of 71 after a series of strokes attributed to long-term alcoholism.
Many of his books have been adapted to the screen. Stephen Frears directed the 1990 adaptation of The Grifters which starred John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. I tried to watch it once but couldn’t get into it at the time. A much better review of this book and a greater focus on the psychosexual tension can be read on The Rap Sheet.