The Getaway

The Getaway - Jim Thompson “It was the work of a few minutes to bury the corpse in the coal bin.” Sui generis. Yes, this features a bank robbery but it ends in successive visions of hell that even Sam Peckinpah thought were unfilmable. It’s a grim read but if ever there was a novel to hand someone thinking of doing over the local Santander this is it.

‘The Getaway’ is all about mistrust. Once you lose your trust in those around you – criminal partners or no –that’s it, it’s all over. Self-confidant criminal mastermind Carter "Doc" McCoy (“No one could get on the inside of a job as easily as he, no one could plan so shrewdly, no one was so imperturbable and coolheaded”) and his vastly more inexperienced wife Carol high tail it from their latest bank job, are inconveniently betrayed by their knuckle-dragging partner Rudy, worry about what to do about their bent lawyer and the parole that was bought and then get some very bad news indeed which, of course, drives ‘The Getaway’. If that isn’t enough bad luck, Carol gets conned out of their entire bag of loot by a train station thief who, natch, ends up sleeping with the fishes; bodies are dropping in this novel from the earliest pages. Doc (struggling to maintain his shit-eating grin) and Carol (barely holding herself together psychologically) bicker their way across America with migrant farm workers, hide out in some hellish caves, a house literally built out of shit and then journey through mist to hell itself. The novel depicts the immense pain in the arse living on the wrong side of the law is (“the good seems always to be in the past”) and fields some moments of borderline surrealism: the delirious Rudy has a full-blown conversation with his childhood mentor, crime matriarch Ma Santis appears out of nowhere by the side of the highway like some sort of demonic siren and the kingdom of El Rey Doc and Carol end up in prefigures ‘The Prisoner’. Along the way, the chronic alcoholic Thompson offers decidedly lived-in observations such as:

“Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crablike movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward.”

That’s a writer who knows what he’s talking about. ‘The Getaway’ is an odd beast, a novel that for the first forty pages (which Thompson was careful to only supply to his publishers to disguise where the novel went) is pure genre goodness, colouring in the backgrounds of the protagonists most deliciously (Doc gets a gilded childhood, a mistrustful father and an almost pathological sense of entitlement) but which then starts to punch holes in convention until it entirely escapes. The nearest thing to it these days would be Walter White’s eventual pitiful log cabin exile in ‘Breaking Bad’ (and I have Vince Gilligan down as literate enough to be aware of ‘The Getaway’) but even that show didn’t have White literally living in a house built out of manure, infested with flies and maggots. The last third of the novel or so is a Dantean vision of hell, arguably a symptom of alcoholic psychopathy and according to Robert Polito’s excellent Savage Art biography it gave Thompson’s publishers the heebie-jeebies too. In both filmed versions of ‘The Getaway’ the ending is jettisoned. The over-riding sense once you reach the strange, dreamlike ending (two people sitting at a bar, neither of whom trust each other despite protestations of love) is of a writer trying to doing something quite unusual and it remains a strange, disconcerting piece of work decades later. “Still, that was maybe, and maybes were bad stuff.”