The Grifters – Jim Thompson

Thompson understands tragedy. He understands that sometimes entertainment should hurt, should annoy. That truth, for a cynical world, lies in cruelty rather than the easy fix of happy ever after. Why is happy ever after such a fix? Because it is such a fake.

I have never seen the film of the Grifters, which is odd considering how much I like Stephen Frears and John Cusack. I am glad I read the book first. A brief, one sitting piece of pulp, it is notable for nothing actually happening for the first hundred and fifty pages. This is especially notable considering the book one has 185, and fits in a tricksy double (nay triple) cross in its eventual story. I can see how it could attract film makers with its strong characters and how-to-be a conman ethos. But I can also see how its very lack of story would need reconstructing from the ground up. I’ll see it in a couple of weeks and let you know on Do You See how they did.

Back to tragedy though. Thompson’s milieu is sleazy, bent con artistes, bunco boys and girls. An easy place to find tragedy, one might think, an easy place where tragedy is the order of the day. The point is that there are no victims, only the grifters themselves. All of whom are the ultimate victims. The whole may be plea for nature vs nurture, but it could equally be a shrug of disinterest. Count yourselves lucky, Thompson says to his suburban audience, you don’t live like this. And perhaps the reason The Grifters stands out in a market full of conman fiction is the piece where the lead actually does a days honest work. Not just honest work, but the dull, monotony of working out systems, SYSTEMS, for other salesmen to work by. Thompson knows who his audience is, and for a brief period he flatters us. For the end of the book we are there, in with LEAD, willing that he would give up the life of a scam artist to aspire to the greater, better, more satisfying life of middle-management. Like I say, Thompson understands tragedy. there is the tragedy in the book, and the tragedy of realisation of the reader when he too realises that for a glorious second he too has been conned into believing his life is better too.