The Nothing Man is one of five books that Thompson published in 1954 (yes, Wikipedia says it’s from 1953 — spoiler alert: Wikipedia is wrong about something), a year which seemed to produce the closest thing to an autobiographical self-study that Thompson was ever likely to write: the caustic, hilarious, staggeringly-imagined Roughneck comes within a hair’s breadth of the revelation of Thompson indulging in author-insert charactership, and The Nothing Man gives us a protagonist who while slowly dissolving in self-loathing produces some barbed wire poetry unsurprisingly like that which Thompson published in his own lifetime. That Clinton Brown is both embarrassed about and dismissive of his own poetical nature is also in keeping here: Thompson wouldn’t have shouted his creative endeavours in this direction from the rooftops, and never admitted to these publications in any of his novels as far as I’m aware.
What we get here is effectively a double-inverted mystery: Brown has a secret — don’t worry, you’ll know it before the end of the second chapter, that’s the first inversion — that he is desperate to keep, and in his desperation is drawn down the path that so many of Thompson’s protagonists walk. But rather than map this out as a result of the aberrant psychology of Nick Corey or Lou Ford, or the lifestyle choices of Doc McCoy or Joe Wilmot, Brown is drawn in by a kind of regretful inevitability — the killing that results is not something done to further his position or to shore up and inscreasingly-tenuous hold at the centre of some spiralling vortex, it simply has to happen. If it does not happen, all is lost. And Clinton Brown is already lost enough inside of himself to run the risk of what he holds true and dear (slight though that might be) being snatched away through no fault of his own.
Thompson always excelled at psychology. If you find the “snobbery with violence” of the puzzle school too anodyne for your spirit to muster enthusiasm for, pick up a Jim Thompson book pretty much at random — excepting perhaps his debut, Now and on Earth (1942) — and watch a man (it was always a man with Thompson, though we shall get to his women shortly) crumble and crack and fracture apart as his mind eats itself while the external world either carries on blithely unaware or, as is more often the case, staggers and reels from the earthquake this sets off within it. The small casts, the small towns, the tight packing of geography, the inescapability of one’s actions, press and press and press inwards on these men, the external violence they mete out more than balanced by the slow awareness of dispossessed reasoning. And typically the only people who have any chance of understanding their predicaments — through being the people who are made aware of them in the first place — are the ones who end up dead.
And yet Clinton Brown is not a stupid man (only a very few of Thompson’s protagonists were — Kevin “Kid” Collins from After Dark, My Sweet being the most visible example). He is perceptive enough in his toadying to newspaper owner and Pacific City moral guardian Austin Lovelace to keep mix in a healthy dose of unsuspected disdain and remain manipulative of and highly-regarded by the man. His aggrieved handling of chief of police Lem Stukey is, if anything, the polar opposite of this: he riles Stukey precisely so that he will eventually be left alone, steering the investigation set to uncover Brown himself away, always away and down routes that keep possibilities open and provide the lazy, conceited Stukey with a chance to shine while acknowledging the flaws at the heart of the man:
I will say this for Stukey: he is absolutely fearless and relentless where vagrants are concerned. Let Lem and his minions apprehend some penniless wanderer, preferably colored and over sixty-five, and the machinery of the law goes into swift and remorseless action. … In an amazing number of instances, the vagrant appears to be the very person responsible for a long series of hitherto unsolved crimes…
And particularly in this Brown displays an unyielding moral streak — I shall not spoil how — which would not be the hallmark of a stupid man.
Where Clinton Brown falls, what he shares in common with the conmen and shysters who find themselves murderers in Thompson’s world, is a simple core moral weakness manifesting itself around women. Here it is Deborah Chasen who starts this decline, with her
[c]orn-colored, almost-coarse hair, pulled back from her head like a horse’s tail; green eyes that were just a shade off center; mouth a little too big. Assessed individually, the parts were all wrong, but when you put them all together you had a knock-out. There was something inside of her, some quality of, well, fullness, of liveness, that reached out and took hold of you.
And from this first meeting, the clash and fire of this lonely woman and this terrified man, she is transformed into something more human, more fully a part of a world that he can begin to see himself inhabiting, becoming “so wonderfully earthy and human. Eve before the apple, Circe with the giggles, Pompadour on a night off.” And this is the terrible thing with Thompson — you almost feel these two could make it, that there’s rejection and pain enough around them as it is and they might at least have a shot at something close to happiness…and yet before they’ve even met their situations are such that it can’t end well, it simply can’t. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s a repeated motif in Thompson’s work that gets me every single time. I believe it was Philip Marlowe who said that dead men are heavier than broken hearts; well, watching Thompson’s take on the doomed romance play out time and time again always leaves me with a league of dead men in my chest.
Particularly here, there is a tremendous gentleness in the handling of this. Where the hardboiled school Thompson rises above despite being classed in tended to take a cynical and poorly-dated attitude to its women, Thompson uses them to reflect back badly on his men, and with Brown’s own guttural and knee-jerk terror at being found out remaining at the heart of everything that goes on here, there is time and space given to Mrs. Chasen and bring her desperately to life through Brown even as you know she must end up the worse for it. And where the easy accusation of misogyny is frequently levelled at work of this apparent ilk (I say “apparent” because Thompson was a far more human and humane writer than Spillane, Hammett, Chandler, etc and frequently mistakenly lumped in with any selection of them) instead what we’re given is, well, the overriding power of necessity…though be prepared for certain conceptions you may decide to carry through with you to be unpicked come the end.
I’ve got this far into writing this and have just realised that I’m not sure what I’m doing — I haven’t really picked out a single theme to explore, and this is too far-ranging to feel like a review and too narrow to constitute a comparison piece of Thompson’s work from this era…so I’m not sure what that leaves. If you’re looking for a comparatively gentle, non-famous introduction to his output then this may not be the best place to start, but anyone who has some experience of Thompson already will perhaps be a little surprised at how delicately and thoughtfully the typical touchstones are revisited. It lacks the compelling inability to look away of The Killer Inside Me or Pop. 1280, and is less propulsive and suspenseful than The Getaway or A Hell of a Woman, but in light of the likes of The Grifters it shows Thompson having a similar swipe at a familiar milieu and coming away very much the victor.
Ah, dammit, it is good to be talking about Jim Thompson. Expect much more in the months to come…
As far as I can tell, Thompson’s full catalogue currently seems to be published by Mulholland Books, the cover of this one being the very first image at the top of the post. However I submit the cover of the Mysterious Press edition, the third image in this post, for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Cigarette or Pipe.