Countless novels have celebrated the American Dream and countless more have indicted it. Few novels have explored the American Nightmare like The Grifters. Jim Thompson has been called the most nihilistic writer in American history. In his novels, no one is redeemed, everyone is damned. Even the straight world, which is only briefly mentioned in this novel of criminals, is implicated in corruption. As William Carlos Williams said, in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, get ready for a tour through Hell.
So why read it? Because looking at the shadow side of life is fascinating, and paradoxically illuminating. Because bad characters, as so many have said, are usually more interesting than good ones. Because the plot is relentlessly compelling. Because Thompson is included in the prestigious Library of America. Because he’s Stephen King’s favorite crime writer.
Roy Dillon is a grifter. He rips people off for money without them knowing it. His relations with three women are the center of this story. Lily, his mother, works for the mob. She tries to get Roy to go straight but doesn’t set an overly inspiring example. Carol is hired by Lily to nurse Roy and hopefully marry him. Moira is Roy’s girlfriend. She wants to recruit him for the big con.
Grifting is fascinating to read about. Watching Roy employ the smack, the twenties and the tat, you may stop and say, “What just happened?” The process upends normal channels of thought, flummoxes standard expectations. You may have to read about a grift here twice just to catch how the victim’s being fooled. That’s the point of it. It’s so subtle the mark never suspects he’s been had. In Thompson’s world, Roy’s life is the logical extension of free enterprise. People are there not to be merely exploited but fleeced. The price Roy pays is he can’t trust anyone.
As for Moira, here’s a jeweler describing a stone she’s brought for him to evaluate:
I mean some of the finest filigreed platinum I’ve ever seen. Practically a work of art. But the stones, no. They’re not diamonds, Mrs. Langtry. Excellent imitations, but still imitations.
Thompson’s double use of language provides a description of Moira as well.
This sort of diamond-hard prose is on every page of The Grifters. It comes out of the hard-boiled tradition, especially Raymond Chandler’s writing. This is hard-boiled at its hardest, something delivered from the black hole at the unacknowledged center of America, a country that’s not supposed to exist. It throws off poisoned sparks that will haunt you for a long time.
Submitted by Richard Grooms
Each year the Birmingham Public Library Archives serves thousands of researchers from throughout the Birmingham area and serves as a resource to the world. In 2012, the Archives assisted researchers from 32 states (from Maine to Florida, Maryland to California) as well researchers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Ireland, Japan, and Spain.
Our researchers include local people investigating the history of houses and buildings; college students researching class papers, theses, and dissertations; scholars researching articles, books, and museum exhibitions; and film makers working on documentaries and other motion picture productions. To conduct their research, visitors use historic documents such as letters, diaries, and scrapbooks; photographs; maps; architectural drawings; and sound recordings. Most items are stored in files, and a file might contain one photograph or 50 letters. Each file that a researcher requests is pulled by a staff person and delivered to the researcher at their table. Often it is necessary for the staff person to explain the items, how to interpret the information they contain, and instruct the researcher on how to handle fragile documents without causing damage. If the researcher asks for copies, all copies are made by the Archives staff.
The Archives staff track all files pulled each day, and recently we hit a milestone. Over the past decade (2002 to 2012) the Archives staff pulled 1,105,022 files for researchers (and then put those files back). Let’s say that again: one million, one hundred and five thousand, twenty-two files. That’s a lot of trips to the stacks.
Submitted by Jim Baggett
Birmingham 1963: How a Photograph Rallied Civil Rights Support
Birmingham 1963 focuses on the controversial Children’s Crusade through which civil right leaders launched Project C (for Confrontation) to jumpstart desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. In May, 1965 the Children’s Crusade became a model for nonviolent protest when African American children marched for their rights. This account tells how Charles Moore’s photograph of teenagers being brutally assaulted with fire hoses against a building started up enough controversy to bring attention to the level of discrimination occurring, which effectively obliged the oppressive, white Birmingham establishment to move forward in civil rights. Moore effectively became a protester himself because his picture’s details imparted a power that changed history. All Americans became witnesses to the hate and prejudice that were on trial. The photo rallied the Civil Rights Movement and energized the public by highlighting civil rights as a national problem needing a national solution. Lastly, the picture encouraged Congress to finally pass laws to give all citizens equal rights regardless of the color of their skin.
Additional, information can be found on African-American History Online databases.
Need to learn the birth and death rates for every state? Want to compare household income and education? Interested in tracking changes in unemployment in any given region? Looking for the effects of shifting demographics on the country as a whole?
Published annually since 1878, The Statistical Abstract of the United States is the best-known statistical reference publication in the country, and perhaps, the world. It is the authoritative source for information on the social, political, and economic conditions of the United States compiled from both government and non-government sources, and serves as a snapshot of America.
Once published by the Census Bureau, it is no longer printed in its traditional format. However, The online edition of this classic reference is now available at any location of the Birmingham Public Library or at home to BPL users with a valid library card.
Click Here to begin exploring this wealth of up-to-date information on the country we all call home.