Title: Pop 1280
Rating: 4 Stars
Probably in response to spending the bulk of January struggling through Ulysses, I’ve been doing much lighter reading as of late.
I’m not sure if Jim Thompson counts as light or not. His style, from a purely literary point of view, is not complex, but his subject matter is pretty much as dark as it can get. If you like your humor pitch black without even a twinge of remorse, Thompson is the writer for you.
Jim Thompson is basically the Kafka of pulp fiction. While alive, he was virtually unrecognized. After his death, his work was reappraised and is now considered among the best that it has to offer.
If not familiar with Thompson’s life, here are a few tidbits:
- During prohibition, he worked as a hotel bellboy, supplying customers with bootleg liquor, marijuana, and heroin
- He worked in the oil fields and joined the Wobblies (a radical labor union devoted to overthrowing capitalism)
- Between 1952 to 1954, he wrote about a dozen novels
- He collaborated on a couple of projects with Stanley Kubrick
- He was a hardcore alcoholic
- He died destitute and forgotten
Pop 1280 is one of his classics. If you’ve already read The Killer Inside Me, then you probably already know what’s going to happen in the novel.
First of all, it’s told in the first person. The narrator is Nick Corey, the sheriff in Potts County, population 1280. It’s the smallest county in Texas.
When you first start reading it, Nick seems to be a pretty unambitious, slightly simple minded, good old Southern boy. He likes being sheriff, not because of any great love of law and order, but he earnestly believes that it’s about the only job that he’s capable of. Desperately seeking to hold onto it, he pretty much lets everyone do whatever they want and as long as they don’t cause too much of a fuss, he doesn’t much mind.
He’s married to Myra, who tricked him into marriage and is now a shrew to him. Her brother Lennie , who is truly simple-minded, also is now living with them. However, it’s not at all clear that Lennie is really her brother. He could very well be Myra’s secret lover.
There are also two local pimps that are causing him trouble. Nick doesn’t particularly care that they’re running a brothel, but even though he’s the sole lawman, they treat him with blatant disrespect.
This is Nick’s life. The world seems against him. He seems to be completely passive in the face of all of this abuse.
Nick is not the man that he appears to be. He actually is a shrewd, callous, manipulative, murderous psychopath. Everyone that wrongs him gets their comeuppance. He puts plans into action and adjusts as necessary.
All of this is told with what can only be described as a dark, sardonic, dry humor. Nick appears to be so stressed that he can barely eat, but then eats two breakfasts. He claims to be exhausted, but sleeps soundly eight hours every night, takes naps, and is actively carrying on affairs with two different women. He claims to just want peace, but thinks nothing of killing people in cold blood without even a hint of remorse.
Remember that this story is told from Nick’s first hand perspective. This is a Thompson specialty (think Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me). You see the world from this aw-shucks, yes ma’am attitude but scratch the surface just a little bit and all of the sudden you’re seeing the world from the eyes of a cold-blooded killer. Since it’s told in the first person, you’re in the strange situation of finding yourself rooting for the sociopath. Will he get away with it? How many people does he have to kill / betray to do so?
Pop 1280 almost gets the coveted five star rating. If you want an introduction to Thompson, this would be a great gateway drug. If you enjoy it, he has a number of other works that are similar in nature, including The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and The Getaway.