Thursday, January 29, 2015

reading Ripley, part one: The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
(originally published 1955)
290 pp


"He was versatile, and the world was wide!"

Tom Ripley is an extremely disturbed man.  Knowing what we know about him, we probably wouldn't want him to come to dinner, live in our neighborhood, date our daughters or our sons, handle our investments -- in short, after we've gotten to know him, we discover he is someone we would avoid like the plague.  But all of the above are judgments made from our outside,  reader point of view.  Rereading this novel taught me a valuable lesson -- when accepting an author's invitation to enter the mind of a paranoid psychopath, you may not like where things are heading, but you've made the choice to be party to his point of view for the time being.  Reading The Talented Mr. Ripley demands that you step into Ripley's brain in order to more fully understand this guy and what makes him tick.  It's the best and imo the only  way to wrap your head around what he does and why he does it.

The first page of this book isn't even over before it becomes clear that Tom Ripley is probably not an upstanding citizen. After he orders a gin and tonic at a bar the next thing on his mind is whether or not the police would send a guy who looked like a
"businessman, somebody's father, well-dressed, well-fed, greying at the temples," 
to effect his arrest. Arrest?  Then -- a reprieve...he's not getting taken away for "grand larceny or tampering with the mails or whatever they call it," but rather, the man who seems to be interested in him has a job for him.   The crime that has pushed his paranoid self to believe he's going to be arrested is tax fraud -- a sort of shakedown operation that benefits Ripley not at all since everyone he's hustled has paid by check and not cash. The "businessman" turns out to be Herbert Greenleaf, father of Dickie, and under the mistaken assumption (which is never corrected)  that Tom and Dickie are close friends, Greenleaf senior wants Tom to go to Europe and convince his son to come home. For Tom, it's the perfect opportunity to start over -- to leave behind his old life.  Raised by his Aunt Dottie, whom he cannot stand (but from whom he still accepts regular checks out of necessity), he grew up in an emotionless environment seeking approval which was never offered; his adult self gains acceptance at parties where he makes an idiot out of himself to make people laugh. This voyage is his chance at escaping -- and he takes it.  His "transformation" begins on the ship, where he decides to play the part of "a serious young man with a serious job ahead of him," but the biggest role of his life awaits him in the small seaside village of Mongibello, where he manages to worm his way into the life of Dickie Greenleaf, with deadly results that will follow Tom as he makes his way around Europe.

[possible spoiler ahead -- do  not read if you don't want to know]

So, getting back to reading this book from the point of view of a paranoid psychopath who has added killing to his repertoire, while in the mind of Tom Ripley, it's easy to understand exactly why he does the things he does.  First, there's Tom, who has zero self esteem and zero self confidence, who is looking to be more than he has been in life so far, and who just wants to be free to live the perfect life.  In Tom's mind, Dickie is a symbol of the freedom that Tom desires -- his life is the one Tom wants for himself, so much so that in his mind, he wants to be Dickie. There's Dickie himself -- the spoiled, self-absorbed son living off of his parents' money, free to do what he likes when he likes, only having to please himself and no one else.  Then there's Marge, who is in love with Dickie who doesn't fully appreciate or love her back, but she keeps waiting for him to come around. Marge is the object of Tom's jealousy; she is an impediment to the happiness that in his mind, he and Dickie could share. So it should absolutely come as no surprise to anyone that when Dickie changes course in his relationship with Tom, Tom takes steps to take care of the situation.  By this time we're so into Tom's head that what he does seems necessary as well as logical.  And here's where I seem to differ from so many people that have read this book -- since I'm seeing things from Tom's point of view, it's almost impossible not to want to see him succeed after everything he's done to get what he wants.  How many people actually take the chance to not only change their lives, but to experience the very freedom that Tom has achieved?

Back in the real world, outside of Ripley's mind, of course the guy's a pathological killer, an amoral bad guy  who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.  He's the ultimate manipulator, the worst kind of bad guy, and someone you would want to never encounter.  But none of that is applicable while you're inside of his world, where good and evil do not exist, where things just sort of follow a logical progression necessary to achieve his ultimate goals.   In fact, it's easy to understand why everyone does what they do in this novel, and that's why it works so well, and why it has remained a classic over the last sixty years.

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