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Saturday
Apr282012

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

It is hard not to like Tom Ripley.  Handsome, educated, well-dressed and mannered, he pursues a life of leisure the only way it should be pursued: with vigor and determination.  Yes, his lovely French wife at times will baffle the reader with her tolerance (what would a pretty rich girl see in a working-class American who, on more than one occasion, has exhibited a certain physical indifference to her charms?), but perhaps what Heloise Plisson needs is the space afforded her by a well-structured if fundamentally loveless marriage.  Loveless?  Very much so, because the only person for whom Tom Ripley can feel anything akin to love is Tom Ripley.  Which may explain the lens through which we may wish to view the events of this novel

We begin one August day in Belle Ombre, that humble French mansion, and Tom's domestic issues with ants, which might lead us to think that he has lixiviated crime from his abiding interest in self- perfection.  But almost immediately we are reminded that Tom is still profiting from the Derwatt controversy, and we know what they say about retired criminals.  Tom's attention is, however, quickly diverted by the appearance of an American teenager by the name of Billy, whom he finds loitering in the vicinity of Belle Ombre.  That Billy more than hints at a knowledge (he stares a little too long at Tom's Derwatts) of the tenebrous reputation of Tom Ripley surprises no one, least of all Tom.  Yet it is Billy's own presence in France – intercontinental truancy is not the most common of occurrences – that makes Tom wonder about the boy's identity.   In our internet age Billy, or whoever Billy really is, could have been traced in a matter of hours.  It takes a couple of days and the perusal of a few newspapers for Tom to make a more than educated guess:

He got up restlessly, went near the window where there was a bit more light, and looked at the People column on the back page of the TribFrank Sinatra was making another final appearance, this time in a forthcoming film.  Sixteen-year-old Frank Pierson, favourite son of the late superfood tycoon John Pierson, had taken off from the family home in Maine, and the family was anxious after nearly three weeks with no word from him.  Frank had been extremely upset by his father's death in July.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Billy and Frank are one and the same (Highsmith apparently subscribes to the anti-whodunit tenets endorsed by, among others, this famous director),  but it is "his father's death in July" that arrests Tom's musings.  John Pierson, you see, had years before been paralyzed below the waist by an assassination attempt clearly inspired (the text admits as much) by the shooting of this politician.  He had coped by burying himself in his work, although without diminishing our pity we note that it is much easier to handle such a situation when you rank among the world's most financially privileged.  His death was mysterious in that he, well, fell off a cliff.  An unrailed cliff where he would watch the sun descend every evening – and off which he could have very easily been pushed.  The death is ruled a suicide, but one domestic employee claims that right before the tragedy she espied none other than Frank lurking nearby.

What happens next does not seem to dovetail with what we know of Tom Ripley.  Usually keen on divorcing himself from scandalous figures, the master of Belle Ombre takes a shine to Frank for reasons that are never elucidated.  Does he empathize with Frank for possibly having killed his father with the same stolid iciness with which Tom once dispatched a close friend?  Is there, as sex-obsessed literary critics love to imagine, a more personal subtext?  Or does Tom simply detect in Frank the banal mendacity of the jilted teenager?  Frank is more than a little infatuated with a coeval called Teresa, although their only carnal experience was woefully unsuccessful.  His account of the events of the day his father died reference this generally forgotten work which could not be any farther from Frank's shallow, untested morals, perfect proof that a bad reader will inflict any interpretation on a text if it suits his purposes.  As Tom contemplates a way to return Frank to his family, who has already set his older brother Johnnie (whose passport Frank pilfered) and a private investigator on his trail, Tom and Frank will become partners – not really in crime but in shenanigans.  One could even imagine that Tom, who comes from a poor family, might take a distinct pleasure showing European culture to his moneyed confederate who cannot be reasonably expected to know much about the world's most glorious continent.  So they traipse across Europe – we will leave it to the curious reader to discover precisely where – and Tom constantly beholds Frank and wonders whether he had the testicular fortitude to murder his own wheelchair-bound father.  A father that really did nothing wrong to his son except ignore him for the sake of accumulating even greater bullion.     

Perhaps the most amazing quality of this series is how intact Highsmith voice remains.  Each segment of the Ripliad was published in a different decade, and yet the works flow as if they were serialized without interruption.  Tom does not age substantially; it is the circumstances and environment around him which vacillate, and he simply responds to their movements.  A much-quoted passage about Tom's lack of contrition will not be rehashed here; suffice it to say that, for all his charm and resourcefulness, Tom Ripley is completely insane.  He is insane because he thinks that what has happened – all the suffering he has caused, all the wealth he has stolen – was the direct result of destiny spurred on by his brilliant schemes.  But what separates Highsmith's most memorable character from other murderous madmen is the noticeable absence of ambition: Tom does not seek renown, does not want for great affluence or power (his marriage to Heloise and the per annum she receives would be enough without his extramarital income projects), and is about as politically and religiously disaffected as an intelligent person can be.  But can we really loathe someone who practices Bach on the harpsichord and reads Goethe?  We might want to ask all those people on Mr. Ripley's conscience.  If, of course, he had one.

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