One of the most misunderstood writers of the 20th Century was Texas-born/NYC-living Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith practically created the “anti-hero” protagonist we have grown so fond of today. Read her psychological mysteries and you can see the pieces of all of today’s spate of thrillers like “Gone Girl” taking root. Her own life was a tangled and unhappy mess. This map of rugged terrain left her unwanted and with a reputation as a “difficult” person. After you begin reading her writing, one can clearly see the search for identity was quite often her own (“Carol” or “The Price of Salt”). Her difficulty with American publishers led to her popularity in Europe and especially England as her existential thrillers made their sinister leads far more interesting through levels of Freudian analysis.
Her first novel “Strangers on a Train” was a modest success that Alfred Hitchcock turned into a classic film. However, it is the five-book series starting with her definitive work “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in 1955 that really displays her engrossing storytelling and talent for characterization.
Tom Ripley. Preternatural grifter. Earns trust while using his milquetoast anonymity to steal identities and run scams with government credentials. Knowledge is a weapon. His imagination knows to press record to save details to dazzle others later or allay suspicions. Knowledge is a shield. Given his own lack of an identity, Tom is protected by who he knows and what he knows about them. Tom rarely has his own needs in mind but knows how to play to a level of familiarity that leads to him simply being given what he wants. His life is not so much of a con, as its absence of “life” provides him with the freedom and the cloak of being in the crowd of living from day to day. His Achilles heel is the constant paranoia of being found out and knowing how fast that could spread through the hoi polloi.
Looking further into his fractured mental view, on the ship to Mongibello to retrieve Richard “Dickie” Greenleaf for his parents, he craves anonymity. The more he cultivates this “negative image” of himself, the more his inner dialogues conclude with the rationalization of getting a fresh start once he returns to the States in six weeks. The purchase of a cap from a haberdashery opens up possibilities for him to actually become a series of different people.
Highsmith’s writing is elegantly simple. Assume the character’s inner voice and take the position of slightly omniscient narrator from there. In the riveting “Strangers on a Train” (her first work to achieve fame and be turned into a film,) she captures the ongoing battle between projecting what those around you want to see from you and protecting the innermost (and too often sinister) “first thoughts” we have when we are not ourselves. A Highsmith character is a study of Freudian tendencies. With the tension building constantly over the smallest infractions, we even get to see the characters breaking from the inside out. Like a Jim Thompson book, the juxtaposition of the protagonist’s two worlds provides an ongoing subtext of tension. However, for Highsmith it is the loss of control at the most inopportune times that reveals so much.
Upon taking care of everything and everyone on his list before boarding the ship, Tom takes a bit of a victory lap. The night before you can hear the success in the silences and inner celebration following his praise by Cleo. He even gets so comfortable and slightly inebriated that he almost sleeps there. However, after soldiering on and gathering the socks and a bathrobe he was asked to get to deliver to Dickie, he is confronted on the ship by his stateroom being filled with his ruffian friends (Tom calls them “crumbs”) of convenience. It is their sudden inclusion and childish behavior that makes Tom come unglued. While he does hold it together because they have to leave the ship, the bitter metallic taste is not one he wishes to savor after so much hard work.
Alone, on the waves, Ripley begins to reassemble himself. A man who knowingly sends out fraudulent letters for tax money as a “prank” knows not to simply steal the Henry James book from the ship’s library even though he cannot check it out. Without anyone to prove himself to, he has no choice but to look into that mirror.
These books are not sympathetic. In fact, they remain very matter of fact, a protagonist whose moral compass has slipped a few degrees among the idle rich. Who are you even supposed to like? Ripley is lying out of protection. Yet, with all we learn about him-even we as readers remain uncertain about exactly what he is protecting. Over five books, it is possible to even possibly feel like you know Highsmith as a person and a writer. However, the mystery of her characters protecting their egos, and moreover only being true criminals when they absolutely have to, could reveal more about those around us than those we are reading about. Perhaps Highsmith learned more about everyone else to protect anyone else from learning about her.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.
New This Week
JOHN MELLENCAMP - Strictly A One-Eyed Jack
Johnny Cougar. John Cougar. John Cougar Mellencamp. John Mellencamp. The name changes like volumes of a biography. An activist. A painter. An actor. A writer. Even a director. Always a singer/songwriter. Like a boxer, Mellencamp has been down for the count too many times but never gave in. He translated Pop success into his own brand of “Heartland Rock.” Then, he turned his back on that and gave us the blueprint for Americana. After that, he next found a way to incorporate modern R&B rhythms and electronics into his sound. On his 23rd studio album, the 70-year-old Mellencamp uses his lyrics to cut through. On the album’s three collaborations with lifelong friend Bruce Springsteen, it is easy to hear how well they know when they found that winning Woody Guthrie-esque progression and how they complement each other - even as their vocals may be a little less soaring than they were the first time they sang together in 1986. “Chasing Rainbows” is a Folk song that raises your spirits. Most of “One-Eyed Jack” sounds like it would fit well on another “Good Samaritan” style tour like he did in 2000. “One-Eyed Jack” is another chapter in his Lonesome Jubilee.
BORIS - W
[LP/CD/CS] (Sacred Bones/Secretly/AMPED)
The Japanese Noise/Doom band Boris create some of their most affecting music from the loosening of guitar distortion and through waves of effects enveloping the abstract yet Metallic sound they unleash. For nearly 30 years, they have been defying expectations. Early albums like “Flood” were 70-minute-long spontaneous creations that became set staples. 2003’s “Akuma No Uta” brought together sludge heavy (still spectral on the edges) Metal and meditative drones with chanting. “W” is the sequel to 2020’s squall “NO.” While they had not sounded that Punk-meets-Sabbath in years, beneath the feedback and noise, Boris was again letting their sound metastasize through the whole body of the band. “W” is the return of the uncomfortable quiet and the lifesaving loud portions. The trio is using their 27th album to manipulate darkness and light. Vocals are haunting incantations here to cast a spell (“Drowning by Numbers”) while guitars are wielded like a machete cutting through the thicket to reveal the healing glow of glints of pure white light.
THE MARS VOLTA - De-Loused In the Comatorium/Frances
The Mute/Amputechture/The Bedlam in Gotham
[Limited LP pressing] (Clouds Hill)
All hail the rule breakers. All hail the bands who alleviate their so-called “boredom” by creating music that sets them to fever pitch in the hope that others will follow. El Pasko’s At The Drive-In were on the cusp of a breakthrough with their Hardcore meets Post Rock. Several memorable TV performances (still on YouTube) made them the band of the moment. Pressure, a van accident and general dissatisfaction deflated ATDI too quickly. However, the band’s core duo Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala had something else in mind. A completely new sound. Brash and Progressive. The latter could bring up comparisons to Seventies bands like Yes and ELP taking things so over the top it could be discerned as self-indulgent. Over these four albums, The Mars Volta made music that was, if anything, more self-sacrificial. As monstrous as their riffs could be and as loud as they could howl and shred over it, there was a different form of release for those who listened. Their lyrics still read with total abstraction, but Cedric Bixler-Zavala delivered them with the force and passion of a singer who made you believe. “De-Loused” was frenetic and enigmatic mixing the slam of Punk with labyrinth Latin rhythms. It was not afraid to Rock or simply churn away at you like a King Crimson album would. “Frances The Mute” remains their masterwork. Written in tribute to a fallen member, it is both mind-blowing and poignant. Like a modern Alternative/Punk/Metal version of Yes’ “Close to the Edge,” it adds so much to their multi-layered sound (most notably Dub and Ambient.) However, it never sounds threaded together. Side One (“Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus” and “L’Via L’Viaquez”) plays to their superhuman tendencies but always sounds human. “Amputechture” even pushes Jazz Fusion into the mix, while “The Bedlam in Goliath” incorporates more Funk. Their sound over these four albums stays as dense as Metal yet really allows you to hear all the music the band is drawing together. In the end, the legacy of The Mars Volta is contained here. Four albums that still have no comparison and still reveal musical mysteries and lyrical wonders to be unraveled.