Christopher Owens reviews a book written half a century ago and highly recommends it.
Authors churning out fiction for money conjures up images of the likes of Dan Brown, E.L James. Anathema to most "serious" readers (whatever that term may mean).
But the best ones are not only enthralling, but they have a subversive angle (be it narration, plot device, dialogue, outlook) that remains with the reader long after completing the book.
And one such book is Pop.1280.
Told through first person, Pop.1280 is the story of Nick Corey. Sheriff of Pottsville, Potts County (population of 1280), he is a somewhat buffoonish hick type who everyone else uses as a lamppost to piss on. Or, at least, that's how he allows himself to be portrayed.
Running for re-election, battling disrespectful pimps and juggling three women at once, Nick's world is speeding out of control. Just as well he's a cunning, Machiavellian type who lures people into a false sense of security before he has his way with them.
First published in 1964, Pop.1280 is a classic, enthralling depiction of what Hannah Arendt described as the mundanely of evil, as well as a thrilling depiction of a life dangling precariously close to the edge. Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Nick is an utterly engaging, somewhat philosophical and completely unreliable narrator, with all of these qualities being underpinned by Thompson's terse, direct writing.
Take this segment as an example, where Nick is talking to Uncle Jim, a put upon resident of the town due to racism and his mental abilities (reminiscent of Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men):
"I'll tell you something else...and it makes a shit-potful more sense than most of the goddamn scripture I've read. Better the blind man...who pisses through a window than the prankster who leads him thereto. You know who the prankster is...Why, it's goddamn near everybody...Yeah, you can't help bein' what you are, jus' a pore ol' black man. That's what you say...and do you know what I say? I say screw you. I say you can't help being what you are, and I can't help being what I am, and you goddamn well know what I am and have to be. You goddamn well know you've got no friends among the whites. You goddamn well ought to know that you're not going to have any because you stink...and you go around begging to get screwed and how the hell can anyone have a friend like that?"
To conclude this apocalyptic rant, Thompson then gives the reader two lines.
"I gave him both barrels of the shotgun. It danged near cut him in two."
Chilling, I'm sure you'll agree.
That's also striking is how Thompson uses the small scale nature of the town (consider the title) and it's isolation to examine the supposed veneer of respectability that comes apart once passions are raised.
Be it Uncle Jim being racially abused, rumours being spread in church about Nick's political opponent and a brothel being tolerated because it keeps domestic violence down, Pottsville has an ugly undertone to it and Nick knows this all too well. Hence why he gets away with (literal) murder.
Simply put, this is highly, highly recommended.
Read it as pulp fiction, read it as literature, but read it.
Jim Thompson, 1964 Pop.1280 Mulholland Books. ISBN-13: 978-0316403788.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.