THE DEVIL TO PAY by Earl Thompson


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Thompson (who died in 1979 at age 46) may have meant this book to be the third of a trilogy that began with A Garden of Sand (1971) and Tatoo (1974)--but it gives the feeling, at best, of only a first draft toward that end, a half-written work that was left in far-from-publishable form. The protagonist here is called Jarl (Cat) Carlson, but he's the same character who had different names in the previous books: he's the guy who survived a childhood of a whore's son (A Graden of Sand) and then an illegelly-underaged army career (Tattoo). And now he's launched upon the world in 1955--attending a midwestern state university, working in a mental hospital, doing newspaper work, and eventually falling into a hot affair with Chicago pediatrician Caroline Palmer. But the writing bug is in him; he abjures the good thing that Caroline clearly is, in bed and out, and he marries instead, on the chaotic rebound, a sexless friend named Margaret--thus to move to Brooklyn and be miserable with her ever after. He goes through: a graphics business, misery, writing a first novel, misery, an affair, the acceptance and publication of his first book. And, in narrative ship-shapeness, this all has the tug of a water-logged rÉsumÉ--especially since the editing is atrocious (friends called Myra and Milt on one page reincarnate as Selma and Sam on another; the sculptor Lachaise is called Luchese, etc.). Furthermore, the prose is barely passable: ""Flesh-colored cotton stockings were rolled down around her cadaverous ankles above incongruous blue and white sneakers that wrung from Carlson a desire to try to comfort her, dispel her fear."" And Thompson's undeniable, notorious talent for a certain grimy carnality in his sex scenes, some of the down-and-dirtiest since Calder Willingham, is all but totally diluted here: "". . . they came together, crying out, she screaming, and lay together blinded, throbbing, moving together for the space of an exquisite lifetime--a full lifetime, for it was the kind of coming that puts the slip on time."" It's doubtful that Thompson would have allowed such a shapeless, often-bland book to be printed had he lived; if nothing else, his earlier work had a crude, vigorous readability--and that's sadly missing in this posthumous, unrepresentative novel.

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 1981
Publisher: New American Library