The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Among my less pleasant quirks is an inability to get unstuck. Sometimes I seize on something about a book or movie that is inconsequential, yet I can’t get past it. All forward motion ceases and the sane among you, which means everyone else, look at me as though I’d sprouted a particularly unsightly carbuncle in the center of my left cheek.
This is one of those times, although I managed to plow through the novel at hand. It’s the remaining ones in the volume that find themselves in a state of suspended animation, awaiting my return.
Typically I know what the problem is. In this case, I can’t quite settle on it. Whatever it is, though, transcends medium, because I found the 1999 Anthony Minghella film as tiresome as the book, despite its cast. How can that be? Ripley isn’t just one of the most infamous fictional criminals, he spawned a quartet of follow-on novels. Clearly the reading public wanted more. All I wanted was surcease.
If you know anything about Patricia Highsmith, especially her sexuality, you might be tempted to slap a label on me. And while anything is possible, I don’t consider myself a homophobe. Nor have I had a similar reaction to the work of other gay writers or filmmakers–closeted or not. Tom Ripley just bugs me.
When we first meet Tom, he’s living a life I can only describe as J. Press on the bum. He’s ensconced in an apartment on Manhattan‘s Upper East Side, though not one he has a claim to. Having worn out his welcome through carelessness, he’s been asked to pack himself up and move along by the true occupant, an older man we never meet.
Ripley is also running some sort of scam. If the time were closer to the present I’d say he was a temp but, in fact, he seems to hold a clerical position in a government office–one that allows him access to personal information. His little game is to send official looking letters to social security recipients having them send him their signed check on some official sounding pretext.
Which, of course, he cashes. How else do you satisfy a taste for the finer things in life when circumstances conspire to keep the brass ring from you? We see Ripley pick up his checks, I mean mail, as he hustles off to an appointment.
That fateful meeting is with Herbert Greenleaf, the father of a former schoolmate. Herb is an inviting target for a scam artist. He runs a family owned shipping business and is terribly distressed that his son, Dickie, rather than taking his rightful place apprenticing to take over the business, has decamped to a small town in Italy to develop as a painter.
Of course I’ll help says Tom, putting the touch on Greenleaf pere to help with some additional costs on a trip to Europe he assures the shipping magnate was already planned. And so it’s off to Italy to find Dickie and talk his way into his life.
Dickie, to be truthful, isn’t much of a painter, though he makes up in volume what he lacks for talent. And Ripley, with his fine grifter’s eye, recognizes that. Dickie isn’t exactly alone, either. Marge Sherwood, another ex-pat, lives nearby in the same small fishing village.
There’s a hint that Dickie and Marge are more than just expatriated neighbors. Actually, the book contains a lot of hints, this being written in the 1950s by a discrete gay woman, and I am notorious for missing hints as subtle as a 2-by-4 to my left temple. Dickie and Marge are living in each other’s pockets and Marge thinks there’s something not quite right about our friend Tom.
By now we know there isn’t because we see Tom running the grift with Greenleaf’s parents through the mail. Marge, though, suspects Tom may be gay and in one of the book’s more astonishing scenes, Dickie finds Tom, who thought he was alone in the house, dressed in his clothes, in his room, pretending to be him. There’s a writer’s workshop lesson in this chapter alone.
That scene sours Dickie on Tom, who is soon urged to move on. Tom, though, pleads and Dickie agrees to a last trip up the coast to the Riviera, before Tom leaves. By this point, even a lout like me couldn’t miss all the homoeroticism which, introduced early in the form of the absentee landlord, is by now all but dominating the tone of the narrative.
In San Remo things go wrong and only one of our two travelers returns. Without giving too much away, what happens is both opportunistic and considered. Now unencumbered, Tom travels to Rome, wraps up Dickie’s affair and sets out upon his masterstroke–the con that will leave him sitting pretty in the Mediterranean forever.
Oh, if it were only that easy. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse complicated by twists I hadn’t seen coming. Jim Thompson, seen here recently, taught me the grift is a fragile thing, made more so the longer it goes on and the more people it touches. The tight fixes Ripley slips out of time and again are simultaneously improbable and utterly believable.
In deference to the form, I’m not going to say any more about the plot. This being a collected work in a volume defined by period, though, I feel compelled to note what immediately struck me as similar. As with the Thompson novel, and unlike the noir masterpieces of the 30s, there was a studied purposelessness at the root of the story.
My friends from an earlier period were either knights-errant, fashioned as detectives for a more modern age. Or they were ordinary men, tempted into high crimes by women. Or they sought revenge or glory only to find comeuppance.
Those tropes have been rendered archaic in this tale. Despite the reputation of the Eisenhower era for conformity, there was a gnawing undercurrent of meaningless and purposlessness, probably fueled by the horrors of war and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.
More than anything else, that’s what’s most apparent in this story of the luckiest grifter to ever get in way over his head.