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Pop.1280 by Jim Thompson

July 21, 2011 26 comments

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. 1964.

‘Oh, Nick! There’s just no one like you!’ ‘Well, I should hope not,’ I said. ‘The world’d be in a heck of a mess if there was.’

As a reader, I also hope there’s no one like Nick but I know it’s an illusion. Nick Corey is the sheriff of Pottsville, Potts County, somewhere in the Deep South of the USA (Oklahoma?). He’s a slacker, the kind of sheriff who eats like a pig (I bought a bite of lunch […] just a few sandwiches and some pie and potato chips and peanuts and cookies and sody-pop), puts his hat on his face, his feet on his desk and takes a nap after his giant meal. He carefully avoids arresting anybody. When a problem occurs, he always manages to come when the worse is over, makes a lot of noise to show he’s there but stays away from the battle field.

Nick is married to Myra and his fiend of a brother-in-law lives with them. Myra trapped him into marriage, pretending that he raped her. Myra has a murky relationship with her brother who skulks around in the streets at night, playing the peeping tom and staring at women through the windows. Let’s face it, Myra and Nick hate each other. We have a first glimpse at Nick’s twisted mind when he talks about his affair with Rose. She pretends to be Myra’s best friend to get around Nick but she loathes her and Nick knows it. He also perfectly knows that Rose’s husband Tom beats her and it never occurs to him he could enforce the law and do something about it.  

At the moment, Nick has too major problems:

1) The two pimps who pay him commissions in return for his turning a blind eye to their illegal business start to scoff at him.

2) The next sheriff election is coming soon and for the first time, he feels he could loose his position. And what else could he do? As he admits to himself:

All I’d ever done was sheriffin’. It was all I could do. Which was just another way of saying that all I could do was nothing. And if I wasn’t sheriff, I wouldn’t have nothing or be nothing.

At lost about what to do, he decides to pay a visit to his friend and mentor Ken, sheriff in another county. He values Ken’s recommendations and here is how he suggests treating the pimps problem:

‘So I’ll tell you what to do about them pimps. The next time they even look like they’re goin’ to sass you, you just kick ’em in the balls as hard as you can.’ ‘Huh?’ I said. ‘But – but don’t it hurt awful bad?’ ‘Pshaw, ’course it don’t hurt. Not if you’re wearin’ a good pair o’ boots without no holes in ’em.’ ‘That’s right,’ Buck said. ‘You just be sure you ain’t got any toes stickin’ out and it won’t hurt you a-tall.’ ‘I mean, wouldn’t it hurt the pimps?’ I said. ‘Me, I don’t think I could stand even an easy kick in the balls.’ ‘Why, shorely, shorely it would hurt ’em,’ Ken nodded. ‘How else you goin’ to make ’em behave if you don’t hurt ’em bad?’

Great consultant, that Ken, right? But Ken humiliates Nick and on the train home, he meets his former fiancée Amy. Now he knows how to deal with the pimps and starts wishing he could get rid of Myra and Rose.

Nick’s evil instincts remain in rather good check until this trip. It will take the pin of the grenade he has in his head and spread death and desolation in Pottsville. Step by step he will take any action necessary to achieve his goals: take revenge of Ken, get rid of Myra, secure his re-election, treat the problem of the pimps, break-up with Rose, re-conquer Amy. But for Nick, the end justifies the means. And cold blood murder IS an acceptable mean as long as it serves his interests.

What I loved was myself, and I was willing to do anything I god-dang had to to go on lying and cheating and drinking whiskey and screwing women and going to church on Sunday with all the other respectable people.

Nick is dangerous and crazy. Dangerously crazy or crazily dangerous, it depends on how you see it. He plays the dummy so that his adversary underestimates him. His spoken speech is full of grammar mistakes but his mental voice is perfectly correct. I thought it was a good device to point out Nick’s duplicity.

I nodded at the paper he was reading. ‘What do you think about them Bullshevicks?’ I said. ‘You reckon they’ll ever overthrow the Czar?’

Only Amy seems to know him well. She notices:

‘About your grammar, possibly. You’re no ignoramus, Nick. Why do you talk like one?’

She’s the only one he still respects and she acts like a moral guide. She tells the difference between right and wrong, partly guesses what he’s been doing and threatens to turn him down if he doesn’t come back on the right path. 

Nick is intelligent. He has a chilling gift to grasp the motivation of his speaker. It made me think of selling techniques. Sales reps are taught to identify the motivation of a client in order to adapt their speech and improve their selling efficiency. The main motivations are security, pride, novelty, comfort, money and sympathy. Nick is an artist at manipulating people. He does know how to play on the right motivation to get what he wants from someone.  

I wouldn’t want to be one of the 1280 souls living in Pottsville. The picture isn’t very attractive: the inhabitants are racist (they still doubt that black people have a soul), violent (they beat their wives and children) and ignorant. In comparison, Nick seems tolerant sometimes, especially when it comes to coloured people. They seem to deserve their lazy and screwy sheriff. And after all, don’t they vote for him? Jim Thompson’s vision of humanity is of the blackest black. The events follow from one awful thing to the other at such a pace that it becomes black comedy sometimes.  

That wasn’t easy for me to read, with all the slang and words like prezackly, Kee-rect!, Natcherly or Shorely. I still try to figure out what the French word for “God-dang” is. Given the context and the use, my guess would be putain but I’m not sure. The French title is 1275 âmes, I wonder why the 1280 from the English title became 1275. Because of 5 murders?

Anyway, I really enjoyed it and will read another Jim Thompson. It will be the The Killer Inside Me, which came in the post last week. I owe this discovery to Guy’s Noir Fest. He reviewed Pop. 1280 here and reading his review is highly recommended.

About Coup de Torchon, by Tavernier, the film version of Pop. 1280.

After reading the book, I decided to rent its film version, Coup de Torchon (1981), a French film by Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier transposed the setting in the French colonies in Africa, in 1938. If Tavernier wanted to give a French context to the film, I think it was a good choice. He was able to keep several crucial elements of the story: the awful treatment of black people, the absolute power of the policeman/sheriff on the city, the small town far from big cities, the corruption, the atmosphere of poverty of means and mind. He couldn’t have given back the atmosphere of a small town in the middle of nowhere, self-sufficient in Métropole. France is too centralised a country to film this in Métropole.

Here is the cast, with French first names: Philippe Noiret (Nick-Lucien), Stéphane Audran (Myra-Huguette), Isabelle Huppert (Rose), Eddy Mitchell (Nono-Lennie). The choice of actors can be discussed. I’m not sure that Philippe Noiret was the best actor to play Nick. He lacks the glint of madness needed for the part. Maybe Depardieu would have been better?

The scenario is well-written. Exact sentences of the novel can be heard in the dialogues but it’s too polite, except for Rose. Lucien speaks too well; he doesn’t make as many grammar mistakes as Nick. I’ve read the book in English; so I can’t tell how it’s been translated into French. But in my experience, French translators fail to give back the accents included in Anglophone books.

What lacked in the film is the vision the reader has of Nick’s mind. I wrote the book review before watching the film. Like I said before, Jim Thompson created two different voices for Nick (thoughts and speech) and I thought it very efficient. I think it even more efficient after watching the film, as I missed the vision of Nick’s duplicity. Perhaps a voiceover would have been useful.

One word about the music: a sort of circus music came again and again at crucial moments, enforcing the idea of a black comedy.

All in all, I think it’s a good film and but it’s not as black as Thompson’s novel.

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