The U.S. Economy as One Big Red-Light District

If you imagine the economy as an animal, the characters in Jim Thompson’s The Grifters are either the parasites that leech on that beast or its masters. You may have to read the book to decide.

Yes, you can catch a glimpse of Thompson’s world by watching the movie version starring John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Bening, each in some of their more disturbing roles. However, the movie’s feel is off. It came out in 1990 while the novel was published in 1963, and Thompson’s sensibilities were really formed decades earlier. It’s worth watching, but director Stephen Frears doesn’t really capture the…texture of the novel: half gloss, half grit, all tawdry and addictive.

Grifters are con men, or con men and women in this case. The novel follows three of them: Roy Dillon, a young man raised in the trade by Lilly Dillon, his grifter mother who gave birth to him when she was but a teenager. Roy’s involved with another grifter, Moira Langtry, one who’s so good at the con, he doesn’t really even know she’s in the game until she outs herself in an attempt to join forces with him.

The novel’s plot is minimal. It’s more of a careening string of events: Roy gets injured during a con (a shop owner smashes him in the belly with a bat) and ends up in the hospital. His mother, who’s in Los Angeles on business (a moderately complex race track scam), takes care of him while he’s sick. She wants to drive Moira away and goes as far as to hire an innocent nurse to care for him. When Roy goes back to his cover job—one that gives him lots of time for the con—there’s been a shake-up, and the new boss wants to make him a supervisor. Roy goes away with Moira for a romantic getaway; she tries to get him to work cons with her. When they go home, the police contact him, telling him his mother’s been found dead. When he identifies the body, he finds it is Moira. His mother shows up at his hotel room, tries to scam some money from him, and ends up slicing his throat.

That race through the gutter doesn’t really give a sense of Thompson’s wonderful seediness. For example, the women look a lot alike and are close to the same age, giving the book one of many perverse twists. However, fun though the portrait of degradation is, that’s not the real attraction for me here. Instead, it’s the portrayal of the capitalist economic world. The grifters look on anyone who works an honest job with a horror that makes them almost physically ill. It is literally less repellent for Lilly to think of sleeping with her son than it is to consider taking a straight job.

It’s also one of the novels that gives the most naked looks at how people become commodities in a capitalist economy, and how economic forces distort things. The best example of this is when the manager of Moira’s apartment building comes by to collect the rent. She offers him the rent or sex. That in itself isn’t that strange. What’s amazing is how she loathes him but sleeps with him anyway, while phrases from ads and menus tumble through her head. She knows she’s packaging herself for sale, and yet somehow, she thinks it is better than working.

The grifters loath the straights but depend on them. The straights would jail the grifters, but they all desire them. It’s the American economy as one big red-light district… and who is in charge, really?

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