American Dream, American Nightmare in "The Killer Inside Me" by Jim Thompson

Essay by CilyneUniversity, Master'sA, October 2009

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Considered as one of the best suspense writers by many, Jim Thompson is an American hard boiled fiction author. His best known novel is The Killer Inside Me written in 1952. The novel is a first person narrative. The narrator is Lou Ford, a small town deputy sheriff in Texas. Lou appears to be nice, pleasant and somewhat simple-minded contrary to his true self, a cold-blood killer constantly fighting an urge to act violently. Throughout the novel, we can see the sheriff struggle with his sickness which prevents him from reaching freedom. Thus, Lou Ford is a typical incarnation of the American Dream "success-to-be ". The question is: does he finally reach the famous American Dream? The term "American Dream " was first used in 1931 by an American historian and writer James Truslow Adams. For some, this is the belief in the freedom that allows all citizens and residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work- and free choice.

Some would say that it is the idea that the American social, economic and political systems make- success possible for every individual. The online Thesaurus dictionary defines the American Dream as the widespread aspiration of Americans to live better than their parents did. In this novel, Lou Ford could have access to more than what he has in Central City. Thus, the American Dream in the text is more like an American nightmare. Those two themes can be analyzed through different aspect of the novel: Jim Thompsons' style, the notion of freedom, the opposition between dark and light and finally Lou's sickness as an illustration to the American nightmare.

Jim Thompson has written more than thirty novels. Most of his characters are losers, sociopaths or psychopaths. He writes about an opportunistic, corrupted, violent, nihilistic and abusive world. His style is unique. Ronald Verlin Cassill an American novelist once stated that "Thompson's was the rawest and most harrowing pulp fiction writer". In a sense, the structure of his novel is an example of the American Dream because he achieved success going beyond what had already been done. His style is new and innovative- contrasted with the English crime fiction, it is hard boiled fiction. For instance, we do not need to wait for the novel to end to know who the killer is and we do not need to guess who he is because it is obvious in the title. Plus, he quickly confesses on page 20 "I hesitated 'knowing Mike, we were sure he couldn't be guilty.' Because I was. Mike had taken the blame for me."Thompson named his main character Ford. This last name refers to the car manufacturing company Ford. The company is a pillar of American respectability and the values of capitalism. Ironically, Lou Ford is not successful or respected like Ford. The name of the town, Central City is ironic as well because it implies that its values are central, to Texas, to America but those values are finally corrupted and contradicted. This implies that the author thinks America is corrupted.

Then, Thompson creates a certain intimacy between Lou Ford, the narrator/the killer and the reader. Lou talks to the reader all along the novel. He built the novel as a conversation in which he reports the events. For instance, at the end of the novel when he tells about Amy's death he stops his narrative to say "But I guess there's another thing or two to tell you first, and_ but I will tell you about it". On several occasions, he interacts with the reader to ask his opinion or his agreement on something: "You see why I had to kill her, I reckon. Or do you?" There are several examples like this one that show Lou's request for a legitimization of his acts. The novel is finally a kind of confession and he tries to find some comfort from the reader. So, even if the audience knows Lou Ford is a murderer, the reader can feel sorry for him because of the way he talks to him all along the novel. Sometimes, he just makes comments illustrating that the novel is a conversation he is trying to have with the reader: "hell, you've probably seen me if you've ever been out this way" page 121 and "But I reckon you know, don't you?" page 219.

The language used in the novel is also a way for Thompson to go beyond what has been written before. He authentically depicts the Texan speech pattern, with sentences such as "crawled out of a hog wallow wearing a gunny sack" or phrases beginning with "well". The linguistic choice shows Thompson's attempt to fight for the validity of hard-boiled fiction.

Freedom is one of the main characteristic of the American Dream. It is basically its essence. Every man should be free to do what he wants, to access to his goal. Central City the small town where the novel takes place is a limited area which means that Lou's jurisdiction as a sheriff is limited too. Lou insists on the fact that there is nothing exceptional there and that "it still wasn't much more than a wide place in a Texas road" on page 6. The way he describes it suggest this is the kind of town where nothing special can happened, a boring place you want to escape from. Thus, the location itself stands in the way of freedom. Besides, he admitted himself that he "had never been out of the county before" on page 74 which means his freedom of actions has always been restricted. The same idea occurs on page 85 when he said "my first trip outside the county. Straight to the hotel from the plane. Straight to the train from the hotel." The details of the trip show that once again he had a limited range of actions even from a touristic point of view.

Moreover, Lou Ford is not a regular citizen. As a sheriff, he has to adopt a specific behavior because "it didn't look good for a cop to hang around pool halls and bowling alleys. It didn't look good for 'em to go into bars. It didn't look good for them to be seen in a show in the daytime" on page 95. The way he acts is regulated by a code he has to follow. He is not free. He acts the way he does because it follows the code even though he disagrees with it. Actually, Lou Ford can show his "real" self because the mainstream society would not accept it. He must play the role the society gave him.

Thus, this absence of freedom and this constant code of wearing a mask are like a burden for him, that is why he tries to justify the murders he committed by an attempt to reach freedom. Murdering would be something he chooses because he wants to and not because a code says so. Unfortunately, the justification is not possible insofar? as he cannot control it and it becomes a sickness. He evokes fatality as an excuse for his actions. Repeatedly in the novel he expresses it is impossible for him to not kill them because they remind him his father's old housekeeper, for example on page 132, "I had to kill her" 8 or page 154 "I knew I had to kill her". When he kills people he is not free because the sickness makes him do it.

Nevertheless, at the very end of chapter 17 he feels good and almost free after telling everything to the doctor. "I was thinking how good it had been to talk_even if he had turned out to be phony_for a while. To talk, really talk, for even a little while". But he knows if he confesses to the police he will be arrested and will probably be given a life-sentence.

Consequently, on page 238, he acknowledges he will never be free as long as he lives.10The third struggle is between darkness and light. Numerous settings are in- dark corridors, dark halls, or dark streets. People hide themselves in the darkness so others cannot see their imperfections, Lou is one of them. He hides from others and from himself because he is trying to hide his true self. However, at the end of the novel when he is in jail, he is put in a cell "with the lights still burning_there wasn't any switch for me to turn'em off” on page 221. The light can be an attempt from the sheriff department to force him to reveal himself; a way to throw light on the situation and explain the reasons to his acts.

Finally it is not until the end that Lou's real nature is revealed to the others. The problem of appearances is very important. All along the novel, Lou Ford is seen as a good boy who is "too easy-going”, "a country boy" and "a typical Western-country peace officer" on page 28. Most of the time, people and especially Amy, Joyce and Bob think he is a nice man who can do no harm to anyone. Thus, he always does what is best for them because he knows he will not be suspected when Rothman tells him "he doesn't fit the part" as a murderer.

This opposition in Lou's character leads to the last part of this analysis: the sickness. Lou uses the term "sickness" for the first time on page 11 while he is with Joyce Lakeland and most of the time it is written in italic. First of all, Lou is totally aware he has a double personality. In the middle of chapter 14, he expresses the fact that nobody has ever seen who he really was even after all these years. He begins to believe that everything is going to be alright after he had taken care of it:"There wasn't any evidence against me. And even if there was some, quite a bit, I'd be a mighty hard man to stick. I just wasn't that kind of guy, you see. No one would believe I was. Why, hell, they'd been seeing Lou Ford around for years and no one could tell them that good ol' Lou would_"However Lou Ford is a failure as a man and he cannot stand it anymore. The need he has to kill these women is also his need to show his power as a man. Actually, we can wonder if his sexual initiation by his housekeeper, lead him to an ambiguous sexuality. The people he is the closest - are two men: Bob and Johnnie and the back massage he gives to Bob could be understood as a repressed homosexuality. Indeed, on page 94 he takes male hormones to show his masculinity to Amy. He often hits women to show them he is a man. He cannot put up the way people think of him and he wants to prove he is a man and he can do more than he is doing. On page 132, he says "Lou could do it".

Actually, Lou's relationship with his father is conflicted, probably because of his "relationship" with the housekeeper. Also part of the American Dream is to be more successful than your parents. Lou's father was a doctor whereas he is a sheriff in a small town. He also declares everything started when his father made his problem mean something. His failure would be his father's fault in a sense.

But then, he begins to enjoy acting and he is convinced nobody sees through him because everything he does "was in character. It fitted in with that dull good-natured guy who couldn't do anything bad if he tried."All along the novel Lou Ford explains he knows where the sickness comes from. His real self is then an antidote to the role he is actually playing in the society. Thompson emphasizes- Lou's external act of humanity and normality by repeatedly mentioning his cigarettes, baths, breakfast and cups of coffee which finally give a sense of ordinary routine. On page 79 he says "I'd got rid of her [Joyce] and I'd got rid of it_the sickness_when I did it." In some other words, Lou thinks his life is an American nightmare because of the sickness and that he just has to kill the woman that reminds him of the housekeeper to be free. His main goal is actually to kill every woman that looks like his father's housekeeper. He is trying to kill her all over again because "anyone who did what that first her had done, would get killed…"Finally we can say that Lou exchanges an American nightmare for another one. He moves from the stereotype of a normal individual to a schizophrenic and paranoiac state of found in his father's books. He is convinced the sickness is schizophrenia even though his inside voice seems to suggest Multiple Personality disorder. Nevertheless, the novel is a narration by Lou while he is in a schizophrenic state; he often laughs at people and is - very cruel. His attempt is to show the oppression caused by a capitalist system filled with clichés and stereotypes. Plus, he never reached the American dream; he has never been even close to it. From the beginning to the end, he is dealing with a sickness that will never disappear.

THOMPSON, Jim The Killer Inside Me, Vintage Books, 1994.

PAYNE Kenneth, The killers inside them: The schizophrenic protagonist in John Franklin Bardin's Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me