RARA-AVIS: American Stuff-Thompson

From: Richard Moore (moorich@aol.com)
Date: 01 Sep 2008

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    Having recently purchased several new bookshelves, I have been unpacking dozens of book boxes including some with contents that have not seen the light of day for years. First, I am more convinced than ever that my manic accumulation of books and magazines is some form of sickness. But in the boxes recently liberated from my storage units are wonderful surprises that sooth my guilt at being such a book collecting fool. I say "surprises" because I have utterly no memory of their purchase.

    For example, there is AMERICAN STUFF (The Viking Press 1937) with the subtitle of "An Anthology of Prose & Verse by Members of the Federal Writers' Project with Sixteen Prints by the Federal Art Project". I paid some store $15 for it and the seller was knowledgeable enough to pencil in "1st book appearance of Jim Thompson." That was probably enough to hook me but I am also keen on books from and about the Great Depression. I was aware of Thompson's work for the Federal Writers' Project including the FWP volume on Oklahoma.

    In addition to Thompson, the book also features a piece by Richard Wright, three years before the appearance of his classic novel INVISIBLE MAN. Another familiar name is Vardis Fisher, best known today for his novel MOUNTAIN MAN, which served as the basis for the movie "Jeremiah Johnson".

    In the "Notes on Contributors" in the back of the book, this is what is stated about Thompson:

    "JIM THOMPSON, born September 27, 1906, at Anadarko, Oklahoma; educated in public schools of Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska; attended University of Nebraska, 1929-31. First manuscript sold at the age of 15; has specialized in detective-story writing. "The End of the Book" is the concluding chapter of a propose novel."

    So I have read "The End of the Book" and it is not the ending of Thompson's first novel NOW AND ON EARTH, which appeared five years later in 1942. I will quote from the piece in the book and ask if anyone on the list recognizes it from a Thompson book. I think it would be hard to forget. It is as gruesome and graphic a piece of writing as I can recall. In it, two animals—one man and one rat—come face to face:

    "When he awoke, rain was pattering on the metal roof of the old tool-house; and a great gray rat was crouched in front of him, its beady eyes and saber teeth less than a foot from his face. He did not move a muscle and the rat remained transfixed. He watched a flea crawl over one of the browless lids, disappear behind a small flat ear, and the rat, as watchful, saw the lice weaving through the filthy forest of hair on his bared chest. Animal and animal eyed each other, expectantly, hopefully.

    "He had gone to sleep with his head pillowed on one arm—the animal called Lester Cummings. One hand was in the air, hanging over his head like the frond of a palm. Now he drew the fingers together into a knot, and dropped the bludgeon squarely on the rat. At the same time he let out a shrill shriek of triumph, adjunct to the blow of the hunter.

    "The rat screamed also. Terror poured through its tiny brain. Through pain-bright eyes it saw the front foot of the other animal—that strange white, hairless foot—rise again. And helpless to dodge, it felt the impact on spine and skull. Bones cracked and in the shoulder sockets the cartilage gave way: the two front legs flattened against the floor, tangent to the soft gray body. Blood trickled from the glistening black mouth. The pain was gone, now, and the rat moved his head freely, looked with wonder at the legs which should have been upright.

    "The paws of the other animal scooped him up and held him level with its laughing gray eyes. The mouth laughed, too, and it saliva dripped from the corners. He came closer to the mouth, saw it open wider. His head passed through the opening, and he gazed down the concave hall of the throat. An instant only. Suddenly there was no light, no sound. Only something hard and sharp closing upon his neck. He felt his eyes leap from their sockets, his tongue crawl through his teeth.
     He felt the rush of blood from his jugular, jerked with the sudden energy of his heart. He felt. Then he felt no more.

    "Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, Lester Cummings crawled to the sagging door, nudged it open with his head, and peered out. The rain was coming down in sheets…"

    That's the opening of the Thompson selection "The End of the Piece" and if anyone knows if it appeared later in a novel, I would appreciate the information. I do have one (or perhaps two) biographies of Thompson that might answer this question but, alas, none are at hand at the moment.

    Richard Moore

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