Sunday, December 14, 2008

Happy Days Are Here Again?

This song was written in late 1929, perhaps when the full impact of the Great Depression could not be fathomed. It was deemed that America need only ‘sing a song of cheer again’, and then everything would be okay.

There’s a scene early in Roughneck where Jim Thompson’s autobiographical protagonist has taken a job as an auditor in a department store. He works for a volatile workaholic who urinates out their office window rather than waste time sojourning to the men’s room. The two men become so angry with the management of the store that one night, they make a display composed of sanitary napkins that spell out the words ‘Happy Days are Here Again’. Such was Jim Thompson’s response to that iconic anthem meant to assure America at its most desperate hour. And so goes Roughneck, Thompson’s rendering of bumming, slumming and surviving the Great Depression while trying to build a career as a novelist.

Whenever I read stories that take place during the Great Depression, I’m struck by two things: how little everything costs and how little people have. In Roughneck, there are various situations where the Thompson finds himself pondering how his family is going to get through the day while looking at a handful of coins constituting their total net worth. Seen through the lens of our current economic crisis wherein we’re all still somehow retaining SUV’s and flat-screen TV’s, these scenes are stark and jarring.

Roughneck was released in 1954 while Big Jim was churning out book after book to feed the American mass market pulp paperback fiction machine of the mid-20th Century. Most of these works were crisp reads that still hold up well today. Some are forgettable. But Roughneck departs from the formula of tough guys, dames and guns. Thompson took the opportunity here to tell his own story of trying supporting a family during the Depression while still trying to becoming a writer. Such a task is enormous but while attempted during one of America’s darkest eras, it’s given an extra gravity.

I suppose our own looming dooming economy and the recent passing of Studs Terkel has me thinking a lot about this particular chapter in history. Roughneck is the hard-boiled companion to Terkel’s Hard Times. As the voices from Terkel’s work are meant to inspire us with their strength and honesty, the cast of misfits in Thompson’s Roughneck are there to entertain us. As Terkel hopes we will see ourselves in Hard Times, Thompson wants us to be glad we’re not him in Roughneck.

In Savage Art, Thompson biographer Robert Polito writes that Thompson “failed to mint an autobiographical language” in Roughneck and “retreated into abstractions like Fate and Luck to explain why his world turned out the way it did.”

But Roughneck needs to be taken for what it is. Thompson took advantage of a brief snippet of freedom amid his factory line of pulps. Perhaps this entertaining read would contain the depth Polito sought had Thompson had not been so shackled to the pulp formula in order to survive.

Roughneck is widely available in this Black Lizard reissue (as seen above). The great JB had recommended it to me, for which I am eternally grateful.

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