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Now and On Earth by Jim Thompson
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Now and On Earth

by Jim Thompson

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It was 4 p.m. After a hard day pounding the sidewalk in the city that never sleeps, I was killing the sweet hours of the afternoon browsing the stacks of my favorite used book store. A few feet away, a swell-looking dame (also thumbing the spines like me) was giving me sidelong glances—the kind of looks that can make a man start scratching.

I looked away. She edged closer.

I loosened my tie and pulled a book off the shelf. A paperback by a hack, name of Jim Thompson. I read the front cover. I read the back cover. I leafed through a couple pages, trying not to be distracted, but it was no use. The dame was showing a lot of leg by this time.

She came close enough for me to get a whiff of her musk. “You just about ready to go?€? she asked.

I gulped, said, “Sure, honey,â€? and reshelved the Thompson. Then I followed my wife, a real swell dame, out of the bookstore and over to Sears where we spent the $12.95 I was about to plunk down on the novel on something really worthwhile: women’s undergarments.

But on the drive home, I couldn’t shake Thompson from my brain.

Right about now, I’ve got a confession of sorts: I’d never read anything by Jim Thompson, a hard-boiled writer of pulp fiction in the tradition of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. In fact, I think I had him confused with the more contemporary author Jim Harrison. Along with the similarities of their names, their writing bears a common hard-muscled edge. Then, too, I think I was getting this novel I’d looked at, Now and On Earth, mixed-up with Alice Hoffman’s Oprah-fied book Here on Earth. From what I can tell, she and Mr. Thompson do not share the same set of muscles.

And now we come to the serendipitous part of our story. That night—that very night, I tell you!—I received an e-mail from fellow scribe, Cornelia Read, who casually mentioned Jim Thompson. She referred to him as “the dimestore Dostoyevsky.â€? I quickly wrote her back, saying, “This is creepy. I was just looking at a book by Thompson today!â€? She wrote back to say I wouldn't be disappointed if I tried Thompson.

But disappointment is just what I started to feel when I was only a few chapters into Now and On Earth. Where was the seedy violence? Where was the writing that forced itself upon me like a gun barrel between my teeth? Most important, where were all the femme fatale dames?

Now and On Earth has none of those traditional hard-boiled elements we associate with the film noir genre. This was Thompson’s first novel, published in 1942 when he was 36 years old and working as a bookkeeper in a California airplane factory.

The novel is about a struggling writer who tries to maintain his sanity in a turbulent household while working as a bookkeeper in a California airplane factory. In other words, it’s a semi-autobiographical blue-collar novel. It’s a bold literary stroke for a novelist’s debut and it’s largely successful, not only as a glimpse into Thompson’s real life but also as a sort of blinking neon sign that announced the arrival of a shocking talent in the mid-1940s.

Thompson went on to write a few novels you may have heard of, courtesy of Hollywood: The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet and The Getaway. From what I hear, if you’re looking for darkness and dames, those are the ones to check out.

If you’re looking for a bitter-as-nicotine portrait of American life, circa World War Two, then look no further than Now and On Earth. In this thinly-veiled account of Thompson’s early writing career, the narrator, the 35-year-old James Dillon, is an unsuccessfully-recovering alcoholic who spends his days counting plane parts for 65 cents an hour and his nights playing referee in his family’s brawls—the likes of which make those WWF guys look like pansies. He’s got a wife who is by turns frigid as an ice cube and hot as a hellcat. She is both Dillon’s torment and his sexual refuge.

Also populating the house are his mother, his younger sister (whose unplanned pregnancy provides fireworks late in the novel), and his three kids who give new meaning to the word “problem children.â€? Dillon can’t get a moment’s peace on the job or at home. Worst of all, he can’t write:

I sat in here and picked it out at fifty words a night. And I average ten cups of coffee and a package of cigarettes to every line. I didn’t write. I just kept reaching out and throwing down handfuls of words, and I moved them around and struck out and erased until I secured combinations that weren’t completely idiotic. And in the end I sold the thing to a fourth-rate magazine.

Most of the novel follows him on his soul-numbing routine:
1. Trudge through work
2. Solve family crisis
3. Drink until numb
4. Repeat daily

Through it all, Thompson explores the theme of alienation that many Americans were feeling at the time. It may have been, as Tom Brokaw labels it, “the greatest generation,â€? but it was also one filled with tramps and working stiffs who couldn’t get a job to help them rise above the poverty line the Hoover era had shoved them below. There is no doubt that Thompson, who led a hard-luck life, put it all down on the page, barely changing the names to protect the guilty. In fact, his daughter once told an interviewer, “If anyone wants to know my father, they have to read Now and On Earth.â€?

Once I got over my initial disappointment that I wouldn’t be reading anything akin to Sam Spade, I was able to settle into the unsettling rhythms of Thompson’s style. At times calling to mind writers like Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March), James T. Farrell (Studs Lonigan) and even Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Thompson writes of the day-to-day grind with a grim honesty that’s almost refreshing.

Almost. There’s still plenty of raw talent here—“rawâ€? in the unformed sense of the word. Thompson, perhaps distracted by his own domestic turmoil, could have shaped the plot a little better and the conclusion is so bizarrely upbeat that I almost thought the pages of the real ending had fallen out on the way home from the bookstore.

But for the majority of Now and On Earth, he writes with the kind of vinegar that I haven’t encountered since Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust). Like West, Thompson’s words come screaming off the page at the reader. Here are three separate examples:

My eyelids snapped open so hard that it was like two doors slamming.

I took a couple of stiff drinks, but they stopped at my tonsils and made a round trip before I’d gone a block.

And what you might call my soul—ha, ha, my soul!—turned inward because I knew how unbeautiful it was. Inarticulate, and awkward, and angry.

This is no Frank Capra-esque vision of America; this is It’s a Miserable Life. Call it The Really Bitter Grapes of Wrath. But it’s Thompson’s life and his sour grapes. Give him credit for being brave enough to open a vein and shake the drops of blood all across the pulpy page. While tapping out this novel (fifty words at a time?), he reportedly told a friend, “I want to write books about the way people really live.â€?

Be warned, unsuspecting reader, this is writing that knuckles you in the eye and leaves a mark. It is so utterly downbeat that it makes Steinbeck’s Joad family look like The Brady Bunch.

As a kind of postscript, let me add that Thompson’s life pretty much followed the grim course of what’s described in these pages. Oh sure, he published books and lots of ’em (between September 1952 and March 1954 he churned out an incredible twelve novels, including The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman and A Swell Looking Babe), but his career never took wing in the United States.

In France, however, he was the Jerry Lewis of literature—they loved him over there. After a series of debilitating strokes in his 70s, he could no longer function enough to write. And so, he decided to starve himself to death. “Just you wait,â€? he told his wife, as he lay in bed wasting away, “I'll become famous after I've been dead about 10 years.â€?

Only 25 people attended his funeral.

But, sure enough, there was a Thompson revival a little more than a decade later. And a decade after that, I found myself in a bookstore with a leggy dame and an e-mail from Cornelia waiting for me at home. Funny how things work out. ( )
  davidabrams | Jun 24, 2006 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thompson, Jimprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
King, StephenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I got off at three-thirty, but it took me almost an hour to walk home.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679740139, Paperback)

An underaged bellboy thrust into an awful intimacy with grown-up vice. An alcoholic writer trying to postpone a crack-up just long enough to finish his next book. A wildly dysfunctional Okie family floundering on the edge of mutual destruction amid the deceptive plenty of wartime California.

These are the ingredients of Jim Thompson's devastating and eerily autobiographical first novel. In Now and On Earth, America's hard-boiled Dante ushers readers into his own personal hell and limns its suffering inhabitants with bleak humor and compassion.

With an introduction by Stephen King.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:40 -0400)

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