Tag Archives: Jim Thompson

King Blood, Jim Thompson’s Tulsa

This contains the best goddamn description of Tulsa, Oklahoma you might ever find:

Tulsa lochopocas. A clanning place of the Osages. It stood at the twin-forks of the Arkansas, near the confluence of the Verdigris; a center of commerce (in so far as there was any) and a conference site long before white man ever set foot on the American continent. Tulsa lochopocas. Tulsey town. Tulsa. Critch had liked the looks of it from the moment he stepped off the train from Kansas City. It was a higgledy-piggledy kind of place, with streets running casually whatever way they damned pleased, and buildings sprawling and crawling all over hell and back in the ages-old pattern of quick money. It was his kind of town, he had thought. An easy-money town. A railroad and river town, a cotton and cattle town. Furs, lumber, foodstuffs. All flowed into and through Tulsa, an endless stream of increment. And now there was even oil, for prospectors with a spring-pole rig had drilled through the red-clay soil to a respectable gusher. In these surroundings, and without refining facilities, it had little commercial value as yet, being almost as worthless as some of those minerals you heard about only in books; uranium, for example. But never mind. There was plenty of money without oil, and the place virtually shouted the news that here one could do whatever he was big enough to do. Thus, Critch saw Tulsa. Correctly, he saw it so. What he did not see was something indefinable, something that far wiser and better men had failed to see at first glimpse of Tulsa (Tulsey Town,  tulsa lochopocas). Men who nominally were big enough to do whatever they attempted.

Even better than that:

More than two hundred years after her off-handed brushing-off of the French trappers and hunters, Tulsa was telling Wall Street to take its underwriting and financing and get hence (or words to that effect). The House of Morgan, et al., were amused rather than annoyed. The notion that an upstart Oklahoma town could itself raise the billions necessary for the proper exploitation of its oil resources was simply laughable. And yet… the upstart town _did_ raise those billions. Not only for itself but for others. And in the end, Wall Street was forced to admit that it had a rival. It remained first, in the big money capitals of the world, as a financier of the oil industry. But little Tulsa – or, rather, not-so-little Tulsa – ranked second to it. So there you were, then. There Tulsa was. A friendly town, an amiable live-and-let live town. A proud town, which liked doing things its own way and knew just what to do with those who would have it otherwise.

Go Tulsa, a town too little described in the annals of literature. sphere_king_bloodIn most other ways, however, Jim Thompson’s King Blood (1973) is offensive and fairly horribly over-the-top in its racism and misogyny. Usually in such accounts by whites of the West, Indians and Mexicans have stony black eyes, impassive faces, they are opaque and unknowable. This book almost makes you wish they had stayed that way for Thompson. At the same time, I confess, it is an interesting exploration of that intersection between pulp and race and manifest destiny. As a general fan of pulp covers I confess I find this grotesque. Where the fuck did they get that photograph. The actual snippets of history in here, though, are hell of interesting. Especially given that Jim Thompson’s father features in it as Sheriff James Sherman Thompson — also known familiarly as Jim Thompson. He’s typing away at an old typewriter when we first come across him. I don’t know why that gave me a shiver. I suppose it is not strange that as Thompson neared the end of his life, he should return to the land and times of his father. It makes the long author’s note near the end a little less incongruous, even stuck as it is in the flow of the text. It identifies the actual historical figures  — the Marshals, the murderesses, the politics of Oklahoma territory and Sheriff Thompson’s big fall from grace tumbling the family fortunes down with him. It admits that everything else — all that mixture of Apache and Creek and African-American blood on the land where Ike King reigns supreme and Apache and poor English is the lingua franca and a strange mixture of violence and hate rules day — all that is invented. What a strange invention though. I hated most things about it, hated the way the ‘squaws’ spoke, the mistaken writing of chango as chongo, the foul descriptions of Geronimo, the twisted ‘Indian’ codes, the scene of torture (that somehow inspired the publisher to chose that cover) and etc etc. Only the history lessons kept me reading, like this one of how the land of Ike’s kingdom was taken and held:

Arlie, Boz and Old Ike had all used their right to stake out homesteads of one-hundred-and-sixty acres. In addition, some fifth of Ike’s lighter-skinned Apache followers wearing city clothes had staked out claims of similar size. Like the Kings, however, they had not made the Run, the race for homesteads, but had ‘soonered’ the land, putting their stakes down on territory which Old Ike had held from the start. ‘You know what I mean, Critch? You savvy “sooner”?’ Critch nodded his understanding. A sooner was a person who slipped across the border ahead of the starter’s gun. In years to come, it was to become an affectionate second-name for Oklahoma – that is, ‘the Sooner state’ – as was Jayhawk to become a nickname for Kansas and Cornhusker for Nebraska. ‘O’ course,’ Arlie continued, ‘there was a lot of fuss about it. But I reckon you know it’d take more’n fuss to move Paw, an’ lucky for him he had the political pull to ride the storm through.’ ‘Good for him,’ Critch murmured. ‘But you’ve only accounted for a few thousand acres, Arlie. How did he recover the rest of his holdings?’ ‘With money,’ Arlie shrugged. ‘I mean, he bought up the homesteaders’ claims. A lot of ’em didn’t have the money to carry them through a bad year, an’ had to sell to Paw. The others – well, they got kind of nervous with so many Indians livin’ around ’em. Got the idea, somehow, that their scalps might wind up on a pole if they didn’t sell. So – ‘ ‘I see,’ Critch said. ‘I think I get the picture.’ ‘Now, don’t get no wrong ideas,’ his brother protested. ‘Maybe they had a leetle pressure put on ’em, but they all got a fair price for their claims. More’n they were worth in most cases. You wouldn’t remember, bein’ away so long, but a heap of the land out here just ain’t fit for nothing but grazin’.

A leetle pressure. Right…. It’s short, so I plowed through to the end, seeking that first promise of Tulsa. Never found it. Liked this though:

I doubt that there lives a man with soul so dead that he doesn’t pray for deliverance from anonymity.

And this:

What does happen to men who can find no other path for themselves than the one occupied by the juggernaut of an onrushing civilization?

Still puzzling over old Ike’s background, how exactly he was connected to the Trail of Tears, the mystery of his whiteness (or lack of it), which is curious in itself.  Curious too about the novel ending there, and the rather spectacular death-by-natural-cause of both Ike and Tepaha, the strange epilogue of sex and accommodation. Above all I’m curious (and angry, and saddened) about this strange cult of violence grown so deep and large that it blots all other human emotions out, all possibilities of cooperation, camaraderie, solidarity — forget about kindness or compassion. It’s so closely tied here  with the expansion of whites across a continent taking everything they could. Despite that underlying fact, it is more obviously associated with the Apaches and the suspect blood of the Kings, the ‘uncivilised’ nature of these savages with their childlike and violently innocent women and their opaque codes of honour. White people got a lot of mileage imposing their own crimes and deepest fears on the peoples they were doing their best to destroy. Tulsa was good at this on both fronts, as Thompson writes:

Tulsa knew just what to do about the Crazy Snake rebellion, the last of the Indian uprisings. She knew just what to do – and she did it – when race riots threatened to destroy the city. She… But that is getting ahead of the story.

So it’s not hard to believe that if there is a good man here it is the Marshal, attempting to impose the ‘honour of law’ on an unruly territory. Marshals and Sheriffs are always (almost always I guess, perhaps, exceptions might have existed) the bad guys in my book, they represent the violence of the state supporting genocide and one of the largest land grabs in known history. Telling that Thompson in the end, however obliquely, comes down on their side, even though he’s capable of recounting with some sorrow the injustice of the Trail of Tears.

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