Revisiting Roughneck

At least once a year I re-read Roughneck (Knopf, originally published in 1954), the second volume of noir author Jim Thompson’s autobiography. I first found an old Mysterious Press copy of the book in a small paperback store in northern California during a cross-country train ride in 1993. I read it during a long stretch from San Francisco to Denver and it has stuck with me since. It’s certainly one of the most intimate looks we’ll ever get at the life of a classic noir author — Chandler and Hammett, for instance, never penned their own life stories, saving details for their novels. Chandler’s look back likely wouldn’t have been as gripping as Thompson’s memoir; before he began writing detective fiction he was an oil executive with a chronic truancy problem. Thompson on the other hand, was a teenage bootlegger — his experiences there outlined in Roughneck‘s predecessor, Bad Boy.

Roughneck is never mentioned alongside Thompson’s classics like The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me, and probably for a reason — his fiction is better. However, I’m drawn back less for the quality of the prose (although it still contains vintage Thompson passages) and more for the heroic struggles Thompson faced to become a writer. While Jack Kerouac’s On the Road stoked my interest in and passion for the English language, Jim Thompson taught me that the act of writing and artistic creation is an inherent struggle. This book also taught me that it is possible to rise above the most challenging of circumstances to create art, even if you aren’t recognized until after your death, the same fate that befell literary heavyweights like Herman Melville and John Donne.

Roughneck opens with a disastrous family road-trip interrupted frequently as the Thompson’s ramshackle car breaks down or runs out of gas. From these inauspicious beginnings, we are propelled into the grist of Thompson’s Depression-era dustbelt life as he tries to keep a hold on his family; make a few bucks, and become an author. He works at a morgue; has a horrible time as a salesman; gets drunk with hardscrabble characters and con-men and has a rare stable job at a federal writer’s project. He also grapples with his desire to write. Throughout, we are introduced to archetypes that will later populate Thompson’s grim fictional world. Roughneck is part Paul Bunyan tale; part Great Depression novel and part self-help book, minus the hand-wringing. We sense Thompson’s desire to create something memorable out of the chaos of his life.

Near the close of Roughneck, Thompson throws in a trademark twist: the author is close to a nervous breakdown and boozing heavily in a New York hotel room, his father near death. A young literary agent tells a much older Thompson — by then in his late 30s — that his book doesn’t convey enough “real life” experience. Incredible. But Thompson, as we know, will have the last word, even if it is bittersweet.

In an age of MFA programs, countless writer’s guides and workshops Roughneck imparts an even more important lesson for anyone who puts pen to paper: endure.