I saw recently Coup de Torchon, a French film starring Isabelle Huppert (had a minimarathon of her films), set in the West Africa in 1938. I got excited and had to go to the source.
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson is set to early 20th century America. Pottsville is in Potts County, “47th largest county in the state” (out of 47). It is a backward place within a backward place, by a river and its sheriff is an unreliable narrator named Nick Corey. His simplistic, slow, apologetic do-nothing-I-mean-absolutely-nothing way of lawmanship has enabled him to live a relative easy and nice life with good money (“I was drawing almost two thousand dollars a year – not to mention what I could pick up on the side”) and free living quarters (“it even had a bathroom”), and he intends to keep that lifestyle. Nick’s agreeable, cowardly style makes him the butt of the jokes from his wife, Myra, the two town pimps, bankers, colleagues, town populace – almost everybody.
In the beginning of the book we find Nick worried. He has no appetite: he cannot eat all of his evening meal of half a dozen pork chops, a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with girts and gravy. He cannot sleep: he tosses and turns almost all night. In the morning he wakes up and decides to visit his colleague from a bigger place, sheriff Ken Lacey about a problem.
He sees his wife, Myra, lying on her bed naked. They start to bicker. Myra is not content, and blames Nick. Nick points out to the lifestyle and status Nick’s position as the sheriff enables them. Myra gets it (probably again, they must bicker a lot). Myra’s half-witted brother Lennie lives with them and comes to Myra’s rescue. Lennie is not Myra’s brother, we get it, and at some point we understand that Nick definitely knows it too. No matter, Nick is having an exhaustive (literally) affair with Myra’s friend, Rose Hauck, who is abused by her violent and generally an asshole husband, Tom.
Now, sheriff Ken Lacey does seem wise and he offers advice to Nick about the two pimps bullying on Nick in a most condescending way, by kicking Nick’s ass with his deputy Buck who he treats as a dimwit serf.
Nick gets back to Pottsville and sets things in motion. Not going into detail but he takes care of his problems, the two pimps and Tom, by clever metarumouring, the election, and more.
The book is narrated by Nick’s Southern, more onomatopoetic drawl, and you do get drawn to his world. You probably start to like him – a protagonist who is just trying to make things right and to live his life quietly. At some point, well, there will be doubts in your mind. I did – he’s a psycho. But we love him anyway, that’s the magic of Jim Thomson.