Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
Post-World War II Los Angeles and the surrounding areas of California are the primary settings for The Grifters . Through the descriptions of La Jolla and the train trip there, readers get glimpses of a breathtaking California, one where people would very much want to live. Roy calls it “beautiful”...
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- Critical Essays
Post-World War II Los Angeles and the surrounding areas of California are the primary settings for The Grifters. Through the descriptions of La Jolla and the train trip there, readers get glimpses of a breathtaking California, one where people would very much want to live. Roy calls it “beautiful” and thinks of how it reminds him of the south of France.
However, that train trip is really the only time Thompson focuses on the sun and warmth that made California legendary. Most of the time, his attention is on the world the grifters inhabit, one which is made up of only two things: people and possessions. Even though grifters like Moira can sneer at the importance the masses put on status symbols (e.g., how a drink is made or served), the grifters are always acutely aware of such symbols. They read them for signs of class, signs of vulnerability, and signs of being in the know, and that means that the urban environment is intensely meaningful for the grifters. When Bert the bartender has a punchboard in his bar, it is not innocent. For Roy, it moves him from the category of being a friendly guy and puts him in one of two categories: fool or fellow grifter. When Lilly visits the racetrack, she almost feels horror at being among the masses and crowds of general bettors. At the same time, though, the grifters must be among these repellant elements to work their cons. This means that their landscape is forever alienated.
In addition to class markers, there are actual descriptions of the city, all of which are marked by categorization. Some come through the eyes of the grifters, who notice things such as the filth of the city, the color of police uniforms (signifying threat and jurisdiction), and the constant act of consumption. Some come through the words of other characters, ranging from the hotel clerk to the police captain. Their descriptions also categorize the people and places talked about, always evoking a city divided into different classes and types, usually with an attached moral judgment that favors the speakers and demeans others who are not like them.
As tawdry as Los Angeles seems in the novel, the brief glimpses of other locations do not look any better. In fact, when Moira recalls her travels around the country with her grifter mentor, Cole Langley, the world she remembers is pathetic. She and Cole move from place to place buying people cheap gifts, then conning them by exploiting their hope and trust. As for where they live, the most attention is given to their “two-hole privy,” and its importance is symbolic: the two grifters would sometimes sit for hours on the double toilet, looking out at the world. As for places beyond America, yes, some like France are beautiful, but Carol was at Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany. The overall setting of the novel, then, is America’s golden ideal, California, portrayed as a hollow, lonely, consumerist paradise that is mostly inhabited by fools. The grifters are the royalty of this shabby world, and their thrones are toilets.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166
Ansen, D. 1991. “Con-Artist Classic.” Newsweek, February 2, Vol. 117. This brief article focuses on the film adaptation of The Grifters, briefly mentioning the book and movie’s relation to the noir tradition.
Baran, Pete. “The Grifters—Jim Thompson.” Freaky Trigger. Retrieved 1/23/09 from . This brief, popular article is an homage to the texture of Thompson’s novel.
Farber, Steven. 1990. “In the Desert, a Jim Thompson Novel Blossoms on Film.” The New York Times. January 21. This article focuses on the filming of After Dark, My Sweet, but reviews the shift in critical appraisal of Thompson.
Polito, Robert. 1995. Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. This book length study of Jim Thompson’s life is essential for anyone studying him.
Schrynemakers, Ilse. 2007. “Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit: Books From the 1950s That Made American Culture.” Studies in the Novel, 39(3): 383-384. This review of an academic study on 1950s novels indicates how new Thompson’s work would have seemed, and how it may seem less so now.