Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novels The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast, and Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is the short-fiction collection Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Among the genre-defining noir writers of the 40s and 50s, Jim Thompson stands out for his brutal subversiveness. Rather than following a hard-nosed detective through a criminal underworld (where our protagonist may be morally ambiguous, but remains, in essence, a clear-cut good guy up against clear-cut bad guys), Thompson was among the first major writers to explore stories from the point of view of thieves, murderers, gangsters, sociopaths and lunatics, with no heroes present, and no happy ending in the cards.
When Quentin Tarantino titled his breakout star-making film Pulp Fiction, there can be little doubt that Thompson was the author at the front of his mind. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Thompson’s heist/road trip-novel The Getaway. While getting to know bank-robber lovers-on-the-run Carol and Carter “Doc” McCoy, one quickly recognizes shades of such outlaw couples of early Tarantino screenplays. See Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction, Clarence and Alabama in True Romance, and Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers.
After a stint in prison, Doc promptly arranges a lucrative bank-robbery with the help of Carol and some of their nefarious associates. The job goes off fairly well, but things quickly go sideways from there, thanks to a series of double-crosses, surprise revelations, and a rapidly rising body-count, complicating the couple’s plans to flee across the border into Mexico.
What makes this often-imitated book still stand out as a classic is the psychological and emotional complexity with which Thompson treats his protagonists, and how that weaves into the gripping, suspenseful power of the narrative. Doc and Carol are unambiguously bad people who should by no means be viewed as “relationship goals” (even in the snarky, ironically romanticized sense many like to do with the aforementioned Tarantino couples). At the same time, there’s a surprising truthfulness and relatability to their relationship. Like any young couple dealing with the stress of getting by in the world together after the “honeymoon phase” is over, they both wrestle internally with anxieties of trust, their shifting perceptions of each other and themselves, and what kind of future they have to look forward to, in a way that feels authentic. The difference is, their anxieties involve staying a step ahead of both the law and their turncoat criminal associates, and they’re not above disposing of anyone who happens to get in their way (readers expecting any romanticized “honor among thieves” are in for some rude jolts). The fact that there’s genuine love between them only heightens the growing, ominous sense of impending tragedy; just how long can love stay true, once one’s made a lifestyle of being untrustworthy and never trusting anyone? It’s here that Thompson’s most lauded trademark skill shines, namely putting readers inside the heads of unreliable narrators. The guy was a master at steadily show-don’t-tell clueing readers in that his POV characters’ narrative of events wasn’t exactly on the money, so we feel an escalating tension and anxiety as we question their perceptions and our own, which ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point.
Most of Thompson’s books tend to stay inside the head of a single POV protagonist. This was the first of his I read that regularly jumps around between multiple perspectives, between Doc, Carol, their friends and enemies, sometimes innocent bystanders who’ve unwittingly become entangled in the caper, sometimes within paragraphs, in ways modern editors don’t look kindly on, to say the least. For this and other reasons, Thompson’s prose feels far less polished here than in other works. At times, the book reads like a barely-edited first draft. For example, someone will be having a conversation presented as dialogue, then it’ll switch to a quick narration summing up how the rest of the conversation went. It’s a testament to the power of the raw material that this never took me out of the flow of the story. Thompson keeps the action and forward-momentum tight and ever-in-motion, with twists and reversals piling up almost quicker than the reader can keep up. In short, everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
One of the novel’s more surprising, memorable features is how in the final act, it switches from being a straight-forward crime novel to a surreal, dreamlike hellscape, leading to a haunting conclusion that’s at once tragic, darkly funny, ambiguous-and-yet-not-ambiguous.
The Getaway has been made into a movie twice, first in 1972, directed by the great Sam Pekinpah, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, and in a now-mostly-forgotten 1994 remake directed by Roger Donaldson, starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Both movies have screenplays by Walter Hill, interestingly enough. I haven’t seen either of them, but looking at the trailers on YouTube, both appear to have turned it into much more of an action-adventure, with a lot more car-chases, gun-fights and explosions. The remake even had one of those cross-promotional hit-single pop love-songs attached to it, the kind that were all the rage in the early ’90s, which amuses me for all the wrong reasons.