Savage Night is not one of my favorite Jim Thompson novels. Yet, in a way that is deeply annoying to me, it has recurrently proved itself to be a big influence on me. I’m not entirely sure why, so I’ll try to go there. If I can be accused of rambling in what is to follow, then it can also be said that I’ve done no more rambling than Thompson’s plot does in this book. That is majorly out of character for him. He’s not a writer known for wandering. His books are tight in the extreme, and punch you when you’re not looking.
This one does the latter — and it has a hell of a punch, if you’re not sure why you’ve been punched, or by whom…just that you got punched, and it’s probably gonna bruise or something, even if you’re not even sure what part of your body has been punched (jaw? gut? groin? buttocks? back of your head? duodenum? bile ducts? corpus callosum?) or whether you just dreamed it all and nobody punched you in the first place, you’re just drunk and fell down. Stylistically, Savage Night is tight as hell throughout…but in plot terms it’s really a big WTF.
Here’s the short version: Savage Night is the physically deformed and physically doomed gangster about to die of a lung disease and going on one last hit mission for reasons not always 110% excruciatingly clear. I find Savage Night to be not just deeply flawed, but basically hollow, in a way I almost never find Thompson’s work to be hollow.
Sure, it’s packed with great writing, but it’s marred by discursive and inexplicable subplots, problems with the overall story structure, much too slow a pace, and a murky ending that I found totally incomprehensible.
That ending, like the ending of Willeford’s Pick-Up, is a red-herring turning point in crime fiction, in some ways. It’s not what’s been influential on me, though it’s the most-often-commented-on aspect of this book. It’s just weird, but it’s still important. Basically, at the end of the book everything goes to shit and it all gets surreal and you haven’t got the faintest idea WTF is going on and that is the point — that’s about what you need to know to understand the novel without reading it.
The ending has been described as devolving into Grand Guignol, a description which isn’t entirely inaccurate. In fact, it gets at the heart of the intention there at the end. But my love of gore can never make me forget that Grand Guignol wasn’t good. Not in overall story terms. The techniques of Grand Guignol might be wonderful, exciting, thrilling, brilliant, and overall — to my mind — superior to the kind of garbagey wrap-up that utterly demolishes most detective novels for me there at the end.
But subtle it ain’t.
Tacked on a very subtle book — maybe too subtle — the ending felt all wrong. It felt like this puppy just never got going, then jumped the rails.
I’ve heard the comment many times that Savage Night is one of Thompson’s most brilliant novels. I’ve heard it said that it’s murky at times because the narrator of Savage Night is an unreliable narrator, a technique Thompson has used with absolute brilliance in other works. I’ve heard it said that’s why you can’t take the ending or the main action seriously.
That sounds like Baudelairean bullshit to me. This isn’t The Matrix. This is a realistic crime novel that devolves into psychological horror at the end. That technique, and that stylistic arc, doesn’t bug me one bit. What bugs me is that Thompson never managed to add the plot up — it just doesn’t wash. It’s like the story that keeps bugging Keyes in Double Indemnity. Something’s wrong…it’s just wrong. In my small, sad life, the narrative gaps in Savage Night form a naggy little rock in my shoe that keeps jabbing at my big toe, saying solve it…solve it…solve it…get the bastard…get the bastard…get the bastard.
Well, I got the bastard; Savage Night is not Thompson’s most brilliant work, and it’s not even the most literary (I found The Alcoholics far more subtle and nuanced). It might not even be his most obtuse.
Ultimately, I think I’m probably wrong in categorizing the end as “all wrong.” On the contrary, the end isn’t what spoils it — the end is what saves it. It’s a Hail Mary pass on a book Thompson wasn’t quite sure how to finish because he wasn’t always sure what it was about. It was a freakshow, and he probably enjoyed writing it, but he didn’t know where it lived, thematically and stylistically. I see that as indicative of Thompson’s self-perceived place in the world as a freak — he knew that he was one, but he didn’t want to be one, and he wasn’t sure what it all meant. This is the book where that becomes clearer than ever — as opposed to The Alcoholics or The Grifters or Nothing More than Murder, where moral tragedy from an amoral voice serves as a benchmark for just how big a freak Thompson feels like. Here, he grooved on deformity and maybe didn’t know what it meant…and he was left empty, as the character is, which maybe isn’t intentional. It’s a sad book, tangled up with genius and isolation, fucked-up in the extreme and lackadaisically beautiful in its own mild, pathetic way because it starts out hard and strong, and goes so horribly wrong in the dullest way possible, until finally it blows up in your face.
That’s how I read it, at least.
None of that changes the fact that Savage Night is, at times, stylistically brilliant. Thompson was a drop-dead stylist, and I love him. Even when he’s off his game, he’s almost always a great pleasure to read.
There are just too many logic problems and weird characterization glitches for me to really think it was a good book…but some of the edgy passages should be put in textbooks about writing suspense.
If you’re a Thompson fan, this is unquestionably worth a read.
If you haven’t read him and you’re looking for a place to start, I doubt you’d be impressed by starting here, rather than with The Grifters, A Hell of a Woman, The Killer Inside Me or Nothing More than Murder.
All of which you should go buy right now, even if you have to mug somebody to get the lettuce. When Thompson’s at his best, he hits so hard you’ll maybe never get up again.
In Savage Night, he’s still fascinating, but I was left scratching my head, not rubbing my jaw.