“I’d been chasing females all my life, not paying no mind to the fact that whatever’s got tail at one end has teeth at the other, and now I was getting chomped on.”
The Jim Thompson noirfest continues with the sixth selected title, Pop. 1280. Up to this point, The Killer Inside Me topped the Thompson charts, followed by A Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Dame, The Getaway and Savage Night. After immediately finishing Pop. 1280, I concluded that it ranked right up there with The Killer Inside Me, but I’ve chewed this over and decided that of the two books, I actually prefer Pop. 1280.
There’s no clear date for the story that takes place in Pop. 1280, but thanks to a reference to the “Bullshevicks” (Bolsheviks), the action seems likely to be set in 1917 or a few years later (news may travel slowly.) There’s a western-cowboy feel to the story accentuated by frequent references to the horse and buggy, but there are also a few cars around. The story is set in the backwater town of Pottsville, and the narrator is Nick Corey, the high sheriff–a lazy womanizer who is supposed to enforce the law in the small town of 1280 people. Nick’s philosophy, however, is that he has it “made” as long as he can keep his job and as he puts it: “as long as I didn’t arrest no one unless I couldn’t get out of it and they didn’t amount to nothin’ .”
When the novel begins, Nick, who’s happy to lay around, stuff himself with huge meals, and avoid any trouble in town is plagued by a number of problems–a pair of uppity pimps who run the local whorehouse, his virago of a wife and her peculiar brother, and his chances of re-election:
Because I’d begun to suspect lately that people weren’t quite satisfied with me. That they expected me to do a little something instead of just grinning and joking and looking the other way. And me, I just didn’t know what to do about it.
Nick reasons that he’ll be without a job if he loses the re-election, so he travels to another town to seek out the advice of sheriff Ken Lacey, a man he professes to respect. Lacey gave advice to Nick some time ago regarding a public privy that fouled the air next to his quarters, so the way Nick tells the story, he admires Lacey for his savvy advice. Nick asks Lacey what to do about the pimps, and he receives a humiliating lesson at the hands of Lacey and his deputy, Buck.
Here’s Nick on the re-election:
Always before, I’d let the word get around that I was against this and that, things like cockfighting and gambling and whiskey and so on. So my opposition would figure they’d better come out against ’em, too, only twice as strong as I did. And I went right ahead and let ’em. Me, almost anyone can make a better speech than I can, and anyone can come out stronger against or for something. Because, me, I’ve got no very strong convictions about anything. Not any more I haven’t.
Well, anyway, by the time it got ready to vote, it looked like a fella wouldn’t be able to have no fun at all any more, if my opponents were elected. About all a fella would be able to do, without getting arrested, was to drink sody-pop and maybe kiss his wife. And no one liked that idea very much, the wives included.
Throughout the story, Nick deals with the pimps, copes with his wife Myra and her peeping tom idiot brother, manipulates the voters in the election (he stands against a very worthy opponent), and also manages to exact vengeance on a number of individuals who’ve humiliated him in the past. At first Nick tells the tale as if he’s stupid and slow, a slacker who prefers to take the easiest path, but as the tale develops, we see that Nick is cunning, clever, and that, contrary to the impression he gives everyone, he’s a strategic thinker. And if that sounds like The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou, well you’re right, except Nick is very, very funny.
The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 share some common features–both novels are narrated by small-town sheriffs, and the narrative in both cases is unreliable. The Killer Inside Me’s Lou psychotic self is deeply buried in a good ol’ boy persona which manages to fool just about everyone. Lou comes across as a bit slow, and so does Pop. 1280‘s narrator Nick Corey. He’s yet another good ol’ boy who hides his sharp brain beneath clichés and familiar sayings, but Nick’s speech is also loaded with bad grammar. Both Lou and Nick have women problems, and they both devise solutions to get rid of the women in their lives. Lou and Nick both have some medical knowledge too–although Lou, the son of a local doctor doesn’t try to hide his interest whereas Nick doesn’t flaunt his knowledge as to do so would indicate the reading of books and his innate intelligence.
There are also some big differences between Lou and Nick. When Pop. 1280 begins, Nick is stuck in a bad marriage to the much older shrewish, Myra, a woman who “looks every bit as mean as she is.” As it turns out, Myra tricked Nick into marriage. Hard to imagine Lou getting tricked into marriage, but if he did, he’d be a widower before you could turn the page on a calendar. While both Lou and Nick are crafty, Nick claims that the women in his life run him ragged, but in truth this translates to juggling the sex demands of too many women. Nick isn’t as sick and twisted as Lou, and neither does he seem predisposed to be violent with women. Nick, who’s fundamentally lazy, springs to action against the women in his life when their competing demands become too much:
I’ll tell you something about me. I’ll tell it for true. that’s one thing I’ve never had no shortage of. I was hardly out of my shift–just a barefooted kid with my first pair of boughten britches–when the gals started flinging it at me. And the older I got, the more of ’em there were. I’d say to myself sometimes, “Nick,” I’d say, “Nick Corey, you’d better do something about these gals. you better start carrying a switch and whip ’em off you, or they’ll do you to death.” But I never did nothing like that, because I just never could bear to hurt a gal. A gal cries at me a little, and right away I’m giving in to her.
Nick’s right. He can’t hurt a woman (unlike Lou), so he manipulates others to handle the women in his life.
Nick is not an admirable person, but in spite of this he seems to be a product of the society he wallows in more than anything else. Nick understands the hypocrisy of the bigoted townspeople very well, and he isn’t above turning that hypocrisy to his own advantage. Consequently he manages to run rings around the townspeople who simply don’t see him for what he really is. The townspeople really want a lawman who’ll turn the other way if crimes involve so-called good citizens; they don’t want someone who’ll enforce the law against them–although it’s perfectly ok to arrest or harass blacks when it suits. Here’s Nick taking the piss out of a man from the Talkington Detective Agency (a thinly veiled reference to the strike-breaking Pinkertons):
“Now, by, golly, that took real nerve,” I said. “Them railroad workers throwin’ chunks of coal at you an’ splashin’ you with water, and you fellas without nothing to defend yourself with except shotguns an’ automatic rifles! Yes, sir, god-dang it, I really got to hand it to you!”
“Now, just a minute, sheriff!” His mouth came together like a buttonhole. “We have never—“
“And them low-down garment workers,” I said, “God-dang, you really took care of them, didn’t you? People that threw away them three-dollar-a week wages on wild livin’ and then fussed because they had to eat garbage to stay alive! I mean, what the heck, they was all foreigners, wasn’t they, and if they didn’t like good ol’ American garbage, why didn’t they go back to where they came from?”
Bottom line: I was beginning to suspect I wouldn’t read a Thompson novel I enjoyed as much as The Killer Inside Me, but I find myself laughing out loud at Pop.1280. Finally here’s one of my favourite quotes in which Nick describes meeting hot-to-trot Myra for the first time:
What I was thinking was that she must have buggers in her bloomers or a chigger on her figger, or however you say it. It looked to me like something had better be done about it pretty quick, or her pants would start blazing and maybe they’d set the fairgrounds on fire and there’d be a panic with thousands of people getting stomped to death, not to mention the property damage. And I couldn’t think of but one way to prevent it.
For another view check out Emma’s review at www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/pop-1280-by-jim-thompson/