If there was a finer pulp poet than David Goodis, it was Jim Thompson. Thompson is renowned as a master stylist from his for his bleak narratives of self-destructive characters, and much like Goodis, he lived in relative obscurity and became popular some decades after his passing. Thompson’s breakthrough novel (still one of his most popular and best known) was 1952′s The Killer Inside Me, which crafted the style and themes Thompson would return to throughout his career. His following novel, Cropper’s Cabin, has been all but forgotten over the years: it’s been reprinted off and on—the most recent is by Chalk Line Books as Sharecropper Hell—but the tale of poor Oklahoma farmers is not one of the most popular in Thompson’s works.
19-year-old Tommy Carver has spent his entire life under the thumb (and belt) of his oppressive racist father, suffering along with his step-mother Mary, a lustful woman only fourteen years older than himself and devoid of any maternal instincts. He’s spent his whole life fighting the system, but as a bright kid who made the football team, his life still has plenty of potential. He’s the secret beau of Donna Ontime, daughter of the local landowner, a native american with some sixty sharecropped acres on prime oil territory. Tommy’s pa owns his own ten acres right in the middle of the Ontime territory, and despite his lust for oil money, he knows that there’s no way an oil company will buy his meagre ten acres surrounded by the sprawling Ontime cotton fields.
And, as the novel begins, Tommy begins living for the first time in his live: by taking one stand, he changes everything, and every year’s worth of pent-up anger and abuse comes gushing out. When the school janitor finds Tommy stealing a half-eaten sandwich out of a trash can, the boy’s pride refuses to let him tell the truth, and his emboldened stand leads him to be pegged for a string of thefts in the school. At home, his father pushes him to stand against Mr. Ontime in front of Donna, an altercation that turns violent. Tommy takes that a step farther and stands up to his father: the old man had ruled over Tommy and Mary for almost two decades, and Tommy’s resistance causes his front to topple down.
Then comes a murder, of which Tommy is chief suspect. He didn’t do it, but nobody seems to believe him. And with that newfound stubborn pride and determination, Tommy continues to take a stand… perhaps one that goes a bit too far…
It’s a fascinating bit of history, because as Tommy points out in an early chapter, Oklahoma only became a state some forty years before Thompson wrote the novel. The issue of race relations is at the forefront of the novel; the place of race and Native American relations is unique compared to its contemporaries. Many of the characters are Native American, including Tommy’s girlfriend, and her “Ontime” surname reflects her family’s status during the land run; meanwhile, his father’s racial prejudices—and, more importantly, their influence on Tommy and Mary—are a major reason for why they’re in as much trouble as they are. I won’t go so far as to say forty years gave it a sense of timeliness, but that gives the novel some interesting angles for discussion.
More to the point, Thompson was writing an Oakies novel in the shadow of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932), both written beneath a looming dust bowl. I wouldn’t say Thompson was trying to write the next Great American Novel, but given the difference between Cropper’s Cabin and the rest of his oeuvre, the novel stands out like a sore thumb. This is, of course, still Jim Thompson; the novel is an intricate web of Tommy’s trudging journey through a miserable life, a positive outcome for his downtrodden existence questioned at every step of the way. It’s a bleak, beautiful portrait of sleazy characters living in squalor. And the prose is pure Thompson, though it’s a tad less polished than his best:
He was staring off across the long broad fields, raising his eyes above the red clay soil to the horizon, looking across the fiery-red plains of Hell with its endless gauntlet of dead-brown imps—the cotton, the cotton, cotton, cotton—closing his eyes to them and seeing only the horizon and its towering ranks of derricks. Steel giants, snorting and chuckling amongst themselves; sneering wonderingly at the cotton and the bent-backed pigmies admist it. Huffing and puffing and belching up gold.
The novel itself feels a bit disjointed, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was written before Killer Inside Me. The first half of the novel is great setup, showing Tommy’s flawed world, watching him square his shoulders and take a stance against his father’s racism while taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. After that, it becomes an extended chase scene, and then a legal court drama. It’s a marked departure from Killer Inside Me or works like The Grifters and Pop. 1280. Thompson’s writing style and down-on-his-luck protagonist are familiar Thompson tropes; however, the novel is very much a slow burn, more introspective not just of its characters but also the history of its setting. It’s also got an ending that’s not half as bleak as the last Thompson novel I read, The Grifters, and the characters felt a bit shallow in comparison.
At the end of the day, I can see why Cropper’s Cabin is not a popular Thompson novel: it doesn’t read like the novels considered his best. But to discount Cropper’s Cabin out of hand does a disservice to a strong novel; rather than assuming it’s another The Getaway, be aware of its strengths going in. The historical setting is fascinating, and between that and the intricate setup of characters, Thompson uses the book to explore some fascinating themes: sex, poverty, racial politics, community, family, love and hate. Cropper’s Cabin lacks the soul-crushing grit honed to a fine polish Thompson’s noir novels showcase. But as a novel of impoverished, downtrodden Americana, delving into the psychological turmoil of a teen pushed to the edge, it’s an underrated gem.
Ebook Comments: As I said when I reviewed David Goodis’ Night Squad (in the form of The Secret Squad), Chalk Line has done a fantastic job with the editing and proofreading; the only grammatical issues I found were probably intentional, given the characters’ dialect. The company is drawing inspiration from the old Black Lizard line of crime reprints, and to reflect that, didn’t scrimp on editing just because it’s an ebook reprint of a vintage novel. And despite the revised title of Sharecropper Hell, it’s uncut as far as I can tell. The Chalk Line Books editions have a few internal illustrations by Martha Kelly, which are simple and evocative little line drawings; the artist choose which scenes to draw, and her choices are pretty interesting.