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Powells.com
Monday, July 9th, 2001


 

After Dark, My Sweet (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

by Jim Thompson

A review by C. P. Farley

Reviewer Dale Peck recently illustrated one writer's failure to create genuinely "soulless" characters with a comparison: "In fact, soullessness in fiction is hard to come by: most bad writing actually suffers from too much soul. A good writer – Hemingway, Jean Rhys, Jim Thompson – works it to horrifying effect by systematically stripping his or her characters of every attribute we think of as human..."

What's most interesting about this statement for Jim Thompson fans is what it indicates about his current literary status. Though at the time of his death in 1977, Thompson was all but forgotten, today this "pulp" writer is mentioned alongside a Nobel laureate. But Peck's observation is also apt. Few writers have used characters so devoid of humanity to shed such brilliant light on the human condition.

In the fifties and sixties, while the rest of the country was loving Lucy, Jim Thompson was setting loose upon the American psyche a cast of con men, murderers, and thieves so amoral they would permanently alter awareness of the darkest possibilities of our nature. In such masterpieces of noir cynicism as The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280 there is no such thing as a straight arrow; the nicer someone seems, the darker their intent. But among Thompson's greatest novels, only in After Dark, My Sweet does he add to this pessimistic view acknowledgment of the human potential for goodness.

Like most Thompson characters, handsome Bill Collins has secrets he would rather keep hidden. For starters, "Collie" has just escaped from a sanitarium, where he had been incarcerated for "mild multiple neuroses...Collins is amiable, polite, patient, but may be very dangerous if aroused..." To keep him level, his doctors prescribe "absolute rest, quiet, wholesome food and surroundings." Collie soon hooks up with a beautiful, self-destructive alcoholic named Fay and finds – momentarily – the happiness that has long eluded him. But when shiftless Uncle Bud convinces Collie to participate in an ill-conceived kidnapping, it becomes clear that his hard-won stability is nearing an end.

Collie and Fay are unique among Thompson characters. Though each is mired in despair and self-loathing, they are at root decent. All they need to salvage their fractured lives is trust. It rapidly becomes clear, though, that they have both long since lost the knack. It is, therefore, all the more heartbreaking when the situation, as expected, spirals out of control – and all the more thrilling when Collie ultimately discovers the courage to trade in the wreckage of his life for a greater good. It is this small measure of redemption that, for this reader, makes After Dark, My Sweet this American master's greatest achievement.


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