Ben Winch's Reviews > A Hell of a Woman

A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson
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it was amazing
bookshelves: anglo, american, pulp, 5-stars

Dammit, I knew it! I just reviewed the whole Jim Thompson omnibus when deep down I knew that one review of A Hell of a Woman would say just about all I need to say about Jim Thompson. It's great! An underrated classic! From the first page you know this is Thompson at his best: the girl glimpsed through a window in a lightning storm, the hard-luck shyster salesman-cum-debt-collector out in the rain lusting after her, and the slang-talking first-person POV he would make famous in The Killer Inside Me, only here put to work in the service of a story, to my mind, deeper than Killer could ever be:
All of a sudden something seemed to snap inside of my head. It was just like I wasn't anymore, like I'd just shriveled up and disappeared. And in my place there was nothing but a deep hole, a deep black hole, with a light shining down from the top.
Whoa baby, this is Thompson firing on 5 cylinders with no brakes and a seized-up shock-absorber, black as pitch and writing from the heart, or as close to it as his sleazy choice of genre will allow. Better still, that genre takes him places he maybe couldn't get otherwise - through some sordid, creepy acts of violence and scenes of dialogue reminiscent of Crime and Punishment in their potential double-meanings, which play on the paranoiac narrator's nerves to the point of near-insanity. (For once, the 'dimestore Dostoevsky' appellation does not seem misplaced.) The self-justifying and self-pity is just about pitch-perfect too, as is the humble-pie act, which in Killer or Pop 1280 seems too self-conscious but here is so close to the line between conscious act and delusion that the narrator himself seems unsure whether to believe it or not. And this tightrope-walk between aware and otherwise may be the essence of Thompson's genius. There's a scene around the middle of Woman in which the narrator, Frank 'Dolly' Dillon, is suddenly confronted with a 'Where did you get that money?' by a character we know has been playing it coy for several pages, and even though we see it coming it's chilling, because what we can't know is just how Dolly will react, given that he's been lulling himself in a dream-world by deliberately taking things at face value. A repeated line throughout this: 'That's how I wanted it to be, so that's how it was.'

Of course because it's Thomspon - and Thompson at his most free - it's never gonna be perfect. Funny thing, in Killer he had the narrator bitch about contemporary fiction writers, about their propensity to dispense with grammar and get all experimental at the climaxes to their novels, yet this is exactly what he does here (and to a lesser degree in Killer itself). Added to that a slightly hokey story-within-the-story device (in which the narrator writes and rewrites an increasingly delusional autobiography) is out of place here, yet works psychologically and thanks to the rapid-fire style of the whole manages not to offend. In contrast, the slangy conversational style is brilliant - as good as just about anything I've read by Thompson or anyone else for that matter - some of it so hilarious that I would laugh out loud and shake my head in admiration for minutes after reading the choicest parts. So too the sex scenes: these truly are genius, for suggesting so much with so little, for staying well out of range of the censors while managing to be both thrilling and gruesome in their import, and giving ample motivation for ol' Dolly to tie the noose ever-tighter round his neck in his struggle to grasp his ideal image of woman. And when it comes down to it that's really the crux of this book, and why I think it is essential for an understanding of its author: it's about the delusions inspired by sex and romantic love; it's Thompson's Vertigo; and, you ask me, it's the explication of a subtext that runs through all his work, and motivates most if not all of the dirty little crimes of his protagonists. Added to that, this is pulp, shamelessly so, and all the better for it. No pretensions to literary in-joking as in Killer (in which the narrator, a deep thinker and bibliophile in the guise of a pea-brained yokel, seems almost like a scathing self-portrait of Thompson the literary master trapped in the body of a pulp writer); nah, here it's just a street-talking over-reaching everyman on the road to ruin in an unnamed hellhole in middle America, and despite his cramming an impressive array of stylistic tricks into the delivery the mask never drops - we never catch Thompson drawing attention to himself.

Make no mistake, this is sordid. It's brave. It's funny. And even though the end will have you scratching your head it gets the point across, and at least suggests a satisfying hall-of-mirrors effect which, while a touch too 'experimental', is well within and somehow even emblematic of the pulp tradition to which it aspires.
we smoked the hay. we started sniffing the snow... guzzle the juice and puff the mary and sniff the c... we did that and then we went on the h. we started riding the main line... we were blind, too paralysed to feel, too numb. but everything began to get beautiful.
Jeez, it's ridiculous, but gloriously, liberatingly so, especially when you remind yourself this is 1954. And remember, this is the guy that wrote Kubrick's Paths of Glory; he's a seriously good writer in the old-fashioned sense. But something's come over him. You want fever-dream? This is pretty close to it.
Lonesome, he said. The man said I looked lonesome. And I had all kinds of company. All kinds. All dead. All jumping up in front of me wherever I looked, all laughing and crying and singing in my mind.
You pull a thread out of this and it'd fall apart. And there's loose threads here - plenty. But you wanna hear a howl from the throat of the 20th-century Proletarian pushed to breaking point by babes and booze and survival-of-the-fittest consumerism, you could do a lot worse. Could be, for all its cartoonish surreal absurdity, that A Hell of a Woman is some kinda 'Great American Novel'. The best kind - camouflaged. Set to blow.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 29, 2012 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Maureen great review, ben. i'm not of the same mind on this one -- in fact, i think i'm of the opposite mind in some respects -- the ending, for me, was the best part! but i certainly appreciate what you've said, and how you've said it. :)


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Hey thanks Mo! Don't get me wrong, the ending was great - pure pulp. It felt rushed but so did the whole book, which may be part of what I like about it: it's Thompson on auto-pilot, using the Force!


message 3: by Katie (new) - added it

Katie Love Brilliant review, thanks!


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

This is a wonderfully written review.


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