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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very independent bookseller

no. 5   

Son of a Grifter
Your Price $25.00
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The Grifters
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Like most well-bred American men, I grew up with a mommy fetish. When I was told that God could not be everywhere, so he made mothers, I knew from experience it was true. My mother cut the crusts off my toast, made my bed, individually wrapped my tomato slices, washed my back, and shunned my father when he failed to praise my talents with believable sincerity. She was clearly a saint. I was certain all mothers were.

Unfortunately, this pastoral image of motherhood was not to last. I first began to suspect that, perhaps, not every mother was as angelic as my own the first time I saw Mary Pop...I mean Julie Andrews publicly bare her breasts in S.O.B.. If Maria von Trapp herself could be so...well, so bad, then who knows what depraved thoughts were lingering in the minds of soccer moms and PTA members across the country.

I began to make inquiries, to cast a cold, impartial eye on the state of motherhood in our fair nation. What I discovered was shocking. Rotten moms are as common as trash liners: Ma Barker, Ethel Gumm, Madame Mao, Joan Crawford, Nancy Reagan... The list is remarkably, painfully long. But I was even more disturbed when I realized that decent Americans across the country harbor a perverted fascination for these wicked creatures. It's sad, but it's true. Americans love bad moms.

What's worse. So do I.

I don't know when it happened, but after I'd compiled a five pound scrap book containing all the tabloid evidence against Patricia Ramsey, I realized what I'd become: an ardent fan of rotten, tyrannical, manipulative, heinous, monstrous matriarchs. And, come on, now that Mother's Day has passed, you can admit it – you are too.

I don't know exactly what the attraction is. I only know that a fascination for evil moms is as universal as smiling and a distaste for Linda Tripp. Now I'm not denying that mothers are by and large a better lot than the rest of us. But in a world where Charlton Heston warrants a fan club, is that really saying much?

No, I suggest we forego the halfhearted protests and get right to the point. You want some dirt and you want it now. As I've demonstrated in the past, my sole aim is to please, so I've chosen, for your benefit, a couple of books that should satisfy readers with even the most insatiable appetite for malevolent mothers. The best of the worst, if you like. I've bypassed the obvious titles – Mommie Dearest, et al. – and chosen two you are less likely to have read: one new release, and one under-read classic.

My first example of an immoral mom is Sante Kimes, who stars in the freshly released Son of a Grifter. If you aren't already familiar with her story from the tabloids, Sante Kimes was the notorious con artist who took as her partner in crime, once he'd come of age, her second son, Kenny. But this is not a run of the mill trashy true crime tell-all (though fans of the genre will not be disappointed). Son of a Grifter, written by Sante's first son, Kent, is a much more personal book than that.

Though Kent grew up under the smothering influence of his conniving and paranoid mother, he didn't end up "like" her. That is, even though his mother tried to instill in her first born a solid foundation in amorality, by the time Kent had become an adult, regrettably, he had no difficulty distinguishing right from wrong. Unlike his mother, who at one point spent several years in jail for making "slaves" of a series of maids, Kent developed both a conscience and the capacity for empathy.

Kent's little brother wasn't so fortunate. After deciding to ignore his older brother's numerous warnings, Kenny joined Sante in her life of crime. Eventually, the pair was convicted in New York of more than a hundred counts of murder and various other criminal charges. They are each currently serving multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole and may eventually face the death penalty.

What makes this book so fascinating, what sets it apart from the countless other criminal biographies crowding our shelves, is that Walker does such an excellent job providing an insider's view on the mind of a sociopath. Though one might expect Sante's son to lack a proper biographer's impartiality, as it turns out, he is ideally suited to tell her story. Kent Walker spent years establishing emotional distance from his asphyxiating and relentlessly manipulative mother. Though he never succeeded in fully extraditing himself from Sante's manicured clutches, he did manage to, more or less, separate his feelings for his mother from his opinion of her, and from his knowledge of what she is: an amoral sociopath with no conscience, no capacity for empathy, and a strong taste for cunning and deceit. At one point the author considers what every reader will undoubtedly wonder: "Is Sante evil or crazy, or both?" Who can say?

Though Walker uses the term grifter in the title of his book, at one point he admits that it's not really an accurate label for his mother and brother. Sante and Kenny Kimes certainly fit the dictionary definition of grifters – that is, they "made money dishonestly, as in a swindle" – but they don't fit the typical street profile. A professional grifter works on the periphery and avoids drawing attention to him or herself. This hardly describes Sante Kimes, who, in her white caftan and flamboyant black wig (not to mention her disturbingly youthful face, compliments of a well-compensated surgeon, and remarkably buoyant breasts, also paid for), was always the center of attention. The victim of a well-turned grift won't even realize they've been swindled. And a true grifter would never be so foolish as to murder their mark. For a more accurate portrait of the grifter's life try, Jim Thompson's slim noir masterwork, The Grifters, which also, by coincidence happens to star one of the best bad moms in all of fiction.

Thompson's heroine, icy Lilly Dillon, is about as cuddly as a wolverine. She comes from a "backwoods family of white trash." So naturally, by the age of fourteen this hardened child is both mother and widow. Lilly, about as maternal as a syringe of steroids, pawns her infant son, Roy, off on relatives. When she is forced to take him back, Lilly passes him off as her younger brother. Charming. She also makes it quite clear to Roy that he'll have no help in this life from his mother. He'll have to fend for himself.

But then a curious thing happens. When Roy leaves his boyhood and becomes a young man, his mother suddenly takes an interest in her handsome son. But her questionable about face is too late. Roy has already taken a mentor in the subtle art of grifting, and as soon as he is competent he hits the road, never intending to see his mother/sister again.

Of course, this is not the end of the affair. Lilly and Roy, who is now entangled in a relationship with the lovely Moira Langtry (who looks suspiciously like his youthful mother), do meet again. But, as any Jim Thompson fan could predict, the tenor of their reunion, let alone the Oedipal nightmare that follows, would hardly warm James Dobson's heart.

Assuming you are not Dr. Dobson, you will find many things to enjoy about this book. Aside from the simple perfection of Lilly's ruthless cunning, The Grifters is a small masterpiece of psychological tension. But Thompson's real achievement is that despite the broken, perverse, and ultimately tragic relationship between Lilly and Roy Dillon, the reader never perceives them as monsters. Rather, in their bungled attempts to cheat their way through a world intent on defeating them, they remain, even at their most perverse and fraudulent, sympathetic and recognizably human.

Before finishing up, I'd like to end with a caution. Just because you and I enjoy stories about mothers gone bad does not mean that you or I lack respect for the Benevolence of Motherhood. Does the fact that I've given money to the Campaign to Outlaw Celine Dion and Kenny G indicate that I have no respect for music? Hardly. Just so with bad mothers. One can celebrate them, and still revere the fine institution they fail to honor. Nonetheless, I must admit my new hobby seems to have unfortunate side effects. Now, when my own mother says about her Mother's Day present, "My, a pink and orange scarf! You always did have an interesting way with color," I can't help wondering if she's being entirely straight with me.


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