Jim Thompson’s second novel Heed the Thunder is a sprawling, multi-generational epic following the descent of the Fargo clan at the turn of the 19th century. Although not a noir in the strictest sense, its ominous style and cruel but sympathetic characters show clear signs of the pessimistic pulp fiction Thompson was later known for.
Like The Waltons – had the comedy family been whisky-drunk, inbred and violent, that is – the Fargos are a big family full of small-minded members. We open with young Robert Dillon being dragged by his mother, Edie, into the midst of this bickering and benighted tribe. Old Lincoln Fargo, patriarch and bully, settled in Verdon, Nebraska after acquiring some land and getting married to Grandmother Pearl, who is dangerously close to signing the family property over to God. Their son Grant is an aimless dandy with his sights set on his voluptuous but volatile cousin Bella. And their second born son Sherman is the ignorant, swaggering chaff duped into growing acres of ruined wheat.
In this panoramic vista across the American prairie there’s as much horror as there is humour, with the interconnected stories of each character spiralling towards blackly comic ends. Murder, corruption and incarceration all feature, as we follow the disparate members of the widespread Fargos, each one lonely and struggling. It becomes a sickly ironic theme considering the size of the family.
Grandmother Pearl’s demanding bitterness sees her turned out by her own children and almost consumes her completely. After bad investments and misinformed guesswork on his crops, Sherman’s left in debt to the bank and struggling to put food on the table for his wife and children. Bella’s desperation to escape the small town and her suffocating family leaves her dead, at the slippery, drunken hands of Grant.
Even the brothers-in-law are tarred by the Fargos’ filthy feathers. Alcoholic Alfred Courtland soon robs his banker boss of his life savings. And inept young lawyer Jeff Parker slowly but surely becomes an unscrupulous but successful politician. This gritty social realism and insight into the darker side of human nature shows why Thompson was soon, and deservedly, described as the ‘Dimestore Dostoyevsky’. Never afraid to see the worst in people, Thompson’s characters are greedy, selfish and often psychotic. These traits are all evident in Heed the Thunder, but are subtle and shrouded in the Dallas-esque power plays.
The novel’s characters are sociopathic teenagers compared to the psychotic adults of his more mature material such as The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280. The visceral descriptions of disfigured monster-child Mike Czerny are reminiscent of the tubercular hitman Charlie ‘Little’ Bigger in Savage Night. The dreamlike flash-forward of Robert Dillon waking up in a Mexico City bar with a seven year concussion is a woozy glint of the surreal ending to Thompson’s crime classic The Getaway, set in the allegorical Kingdom of El Rey, where the kingdom is Hell and El Rey plays the devil.
In Heed the Thunder some narrative threads are left dangling, but as this was the first in a proposed but unfulfilled trilogy, we can forgive Thompson, and only begrudge the fact that he never gifted us the next two instalments. Originally published in 1946, the book was reprinted with an antler adorned cover by Mulholland last year. Or, try the American Armchair Detective version for just £2.75 second-hand – it has a foreword by James Ellroy and is well worth it if you’re looking for some classic noir.
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