Poet and scholar Robert Polito to discuss Oklahoma’s Jim Thompson
Robert Polito, author of “Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson,” will join Tulsa LitFest to discuss the work of Jim Thompson, a prodigious crime writer from Anadarko, Okla., who passed away 41 years ago. In the early ‘90s, Black Lizard, a small publishing house in the Bay Area, began reissuing Thompson’s books. After reading some reviews, Polito bought the five books Black Lizard had reprinted, beginning with “A Hell of a Woman” (1954).
“It starts off in a realistic crime novel universe, after the first serious traumatic murder,” Polito said. “Not only does the psyche of the character start to fall apart, but the formal qualities of the novel split apart.”
The book sent him on a quest to determine “where a novel like this could come from, in both the life of an individual and the life of a country.” What Polito found surprised him: Thompson’s experimental crime novels—i.e. novels about complicated sheriffs in Oklahoma or Texas who turn out to be not who they appear as—were quite autobiographical.
“Thompson was haunted by this sense that his father was also kind of somebody else—that vision of his father was behind the characters. These genre novels turned out to be personal.”
Another surprise for Polito was how left-leaning the Federal Writers’ Project—part of the WPA—was in Oklahoma. Thompson was a member of the Communist party (his predecessor Bill Cunningham, too), and the people he associated with “were communists in that Woody Guthrie way,” Polito said. “It was a very American version of communism, and Thompson was friends with Guthrie and followed him to NYC, in a way. I knew the Writers’ Project in NYC or San Francisco or Chicago was predominantly on the left, but it was a surprise to see that that was the case in Oklahoma also.” Polito sees in the dark vision of Thompson’s novels a Marxist view of the world—the “novels portrayed how the world is until an economic shift comes.”
Polito has visited Tulsa for research, both for his Thompson work and for a book about Bob Dylan he’s working on. “I’m very fond of Tulsa, very fond of Oklahoma. Thompson was like Woody Guthrie, a true native son of Oklahoma.”
Crime Time: Remembering Jim Thompson with Robert Polito
Sat., April 21, 1 p.m.
Magic City Books, 221 E. Archer St.