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IN BRIEF

FICTION : CHILD OF RAGE by Jim Thompson (Blood & Guts Press: $35; 262 pp.).

July 14, 1991|Michael Harris

Cashing in on the Jim Thompson revival, Westwood's Blood & Guts Press has issued what it says is the first edition of Thompson's last novel, "Child of Rage," to adhere to the original manuscript. This version, which the publisher says "differs significantly" from the 1972 paperback edition, comes with an introduction by local crime novelist Gerald Petievich ("To Live and Die in L.A."), who calls it "one of the greatest send-ups of racial prejudice in fiction . . . a classic Oedipal plot," and asks rhetorically: "Who called Jim Thompson a pulp writer?"

"Child of Rage" features a mother-son relationship even worse than the one in Thompson's "The Grifters." The son, Allen Smith, is black. His mother is white. A call girl known in the trade as an "Afro-American specialist," she resents this product of her indiscretions and tries to make Allen's life hell, mostly through seductive behavior that renders him impotent with any other woman. As a teen-ager, he uses his 190 IQ to treat people the way his mother treats him, setting them up and putting them down. He hates whites for the way they oppress blacks--and hates blacks for either imitating whites or conforming to their ugliest stereotypes.

This novel is fast-moving, violent and savagely funny, but it reads as if it appeared a generation earlier than 1972. Dirty language shocks many of Thompson's characters, and he seems to have expected it to shock his readers as well, though he was coy about depicting sexual acts themselves. His descriptions of New York City are perfunctory. His dialogue seldom rings true. "Child of Rage" is alternately underwritten and overwritten; Thompson used the crudest of transitions and the grossest of coincidences to keep emotions at a boil--signs that, with one important reservation, he was a pulp writer.

The reservation? Thompson seems to have had a genuinely antisocial streak in him--a rare quality among the literary classes, though many writers pretend to have it. When the real thing appears, in a Thompson or a Charles Bukowski, it's startling, even refreshing. "Child of Rage" may fail as realism, but the author's insight into Allen's fury and ambivalence lends the novel the intensity of a feverish dream.

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