So, I know that at least a couple of my readers work in the Federal bureaucracy (Hello, Mad Dog!). Just how bored are y’all, anyway? But remember, these folks are all that stand between us and Somalia, right? They’re for the children. And roads!
Read Jim Thompson’s South of Heaven this morning. It’s one of his later books (published in 1967), and it shows. I’ve been told that later in his career, as Thompson’s alcoholism continued on its course, he’d start a book strongly, but after getting paid, he and the story would slide downhill in a big hurry. That’s basically what happens here. The book’s biggest flaws — in my estimation — were a tendency towards preachiness and a strange sort of refusal to follow through with what he did best. What do I mean?
Like a lot of writers of his generation, Thompson had been involved with communism, seeing it as a possible solution to the social problem’s of Depression-era America. His story is set in a pipeline camp in 1920s West Texas. Most of the characters are hobos, working on the pipeline, living rough and being exploited by the capitalists running the project. Some of the best writing in the book appears in his descriptions of these working men, who have been in society’s underbelly for so long that they can’t imagine being elsewhere, and who will work their brutal jobs until they’re no longer capable, at which point they’ll die. However, the descriptions are too often juxtaposed with heavy-handed accounts of the corruption above, to the point that the story feels propagandistic. It’s too often about as subtle as a Pat Oliphant cartoon.
The second problem, and in some ways, the less forgivable one, is that Thompson seems to inflict a positive ending on his story, pulling back from the almost cosmic horror of some of his best 1950s work. Thompson being Thompson, the justice that is done is rough justice indeed, but in his older works, he takes the characters and readers to the edge of the abyss and sends us all hurtling into it together. Here, he doesn’t.
I’m still reading The Blue Star, by the way, a chapter or subchapter at a sitting. It’s not bad (once past the framing prologue, anyway), but at this point, Pratt’s prose style seems a bit stilted — even arch. I know it’s intentional, having always found his work very readable in the past, and I suppose it’s appropriate to the setting of the story (a counterfactual sort of Austrian Empire, ca. 18th-C.), but it still keeps me from digging in as I normally might. More as I have it.
I can tell we’re getting close to the beginning of a new school year. Some of the signs are obvious — commercials, the sales-tax-free weekend (wrapping up today) for back-to-school shopping, the Spawn’s band camp. Others are more subtle — I’m starting to feel the itch to get back into the classroom, to meet new kids and see the ones I’ve already met. I’m starting to feel the urge to go to Mondoville’s football games again (although I’ll miss some for band competitions — priorities!). And most of all, I’m feeling the need to start talking about books and movies and poems and good writing, and the differences they’ve made in my life and the lives of others, for a few hours each day.
Grading papers? That, I don’t mind waiting for. But otherwise? Let’s get to it.
Finally, a dose of music to get through the rest of the weekend — at least until my Berries practice tonight for a brief unplugged gig in a couple of weeks. We won’t be doing this one, but I still get a charge out of its toughness; a song where the protagonist racks pool balls for a nickel a game and is threatened with being sent back to an orphanage? That’s hard-boiled. From the Chicago area, here are Half-Pint and the Fifths, doing 1966’s “Orphan Boy.”
See you soon!