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BOOK REVIEW

The darkly talented Patricia Highsmith

The author's five Tom Ripley novels, collected in a boxed set, place average readers discomfortably at home in the mind of an amoral criminal mastermind.

October 26, 2008|James Sallis | Sallis' omnibus volume, "What You Have Left: The Turner Trilogy," will be published in December.

The Complete Ripley Novels

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Ripley Under Water

Patricia Highsmith

W.W. Norton: 5 volumes boxed, $100

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In March 1954, in a rented cottage in Lenox, Mass., Patricia Highsmith, who had gained considerable acclaim with her first book, "Strangers on a Train," and much attention for her "novel of a love society forbids," "The Price of Salt," began a new novel.

"I am becoming a little odd, personally," she wrote in her notebooks about this time. And not long before: "My personal maladies and malaises are only those of my own generation and of my time, heightened."

It's pure conjecture, of course, what may have been going on in her mind as she wrote the first pages of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." But one wonders whether she may have conceived the novel, in part, as a dispatch from the front -- not simply a counterbalance to that image of 1950s America being presented in Life magazine and on television, but as a strike at something more fundamental, an indictment of America's very identity.

Highsmith had always felt estranged from the society around her and grew to feel ever more so. In 1963, she would relocate to Europe and spend the remainder of her life there. (She died in Switzerland in 1995.)

Our national literature and image, with our lives in hot pursuit, enthrone individualism. We're a strange people, eager at one and the same time to be left alone and to triumph over the world about us, Thoreau and Clint Eastwood riding double, notions of manifest destiny, freedom and all those other big words that make us so unhappy coursing and clotting in our veins. This is the land where Everyman, by force of character, can become The Man.

Tom Ripley's is the Horatio Alger story told from the underside, individualism spun out to its thinnest, keenest edge, the saga of a man who achieves all the good things of life -- security, status, wealth -- not through hard work and earnest middle-American values, but through murder and deceit.

The genius of the five novels Highsmith eventually wrote about this character lies in the manner in which she lodges us so firmly in Ripley's head that his perception of the world begins to seem almost right to us. We become so immured in his world that, like him, we are unable to see beyond it. We come very close to admiring him; we root for his escape from whatever pursuit or situation dogs him. In her book "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction," Highsmith remarked how completely she herself had inhabited Ripley's world: "I often had the feeling Ripley was writing it and I was merely typing." The very flatness of her prose reflects Ripley's lack of center and substance, the image of a man whose self resides only in externals.

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" begins with the character dispatched to Europe to bring back a wayward son named Dickie (in purposeful parallel to Henry James' "The Ambassadors"). Ripley, though, instead befriends, or attaches himself to, that young man. Living in Dickie's world, he feels for the first time a part of the larger life around him, no longer shut out from it, granted the due he's always felt should be his. Then Dickie tires of him and tries to send him away. In a murder that is at once real and a symbolic destruction of self -- and, above all else, imminently pragmatic, as are all his solutions -- Ripley kills Dickie and assumes his identity.

We first see Ripley's imagination in full bloom as he sits aboard ship writing a letter to Dickie's father, who has funded this trip. What began as a simple thank-you note proliferates, until the table is covered with sheets of paper relating the story of his and Dickie's idyllic life together in Europe. At novel's end, circumstances force him to resume his old identity: "He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody."

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" was written in six months. The other four novels -- "Ripley Under Ground," "Ripley's Game," "The Boy Who Followed Ripley," "Ripley Under Water" -- appeared over a period of 36 years. Forever too adamantine to repeat herself or to court commercial success, Highsmith used them not to do dirty dozens on the original, as so often occurs in a series, but to dig ever deeper into Ripley's mind and vacant soul. The surface of his life may seem calm, but underneath roils the same stormy gulf -- and the surface itself is a magnificently constructed lie.

In these books, Highsmith is like a fine improviser, playing the melody then going ever farther afield, always reaching, out to the edge and back, looking to see what all is in there.

By the second novel, "Ripley Under Ground," set six years after the first, Ripley has married into a wealthy French family and occupies a fine home, Belle Ombre, in the French countryside, where one pastime is puttering about in his garden and another is dealing in art forgeries. Threatened with exposure, he turns again to murder.

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