"Ripley Under Ground" by Patricia Highsmith
Sunday, November 30, 2008
RIPLEY UNDER GROUND
By Patricia Highsmith
Norton. 285 pp. Paperback, $13.95
The Texas-born novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) had a decidedly unhappy childhood. Among other things, her parents separated before she was born, her mother later told her she'd tried to induce an abortion by drinking turpentine, and she had toxic relationships with her mother and stepfather.
After graduating from Barnard, Highsmith supported herself writing for comic books, then made her literary debut in 1950 with "Strangers on a Train," the story of a psychopath who pressures another man to join a murder pact. The novel sold modestly, but Alfred Hitchcock appreciated its icy brilliance and transformed it into one of his finest films. In 1955, with "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the story of another psychopath, Highsmith's genius reached full flower. She spent the rest of her life writing novels that are literate and sophisticated, yet often astonishingly savage.
The success of the 1999 film version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (with Matt Damon as Tom Ripley) aroused new interest in Highsmith's work, and Norton is reissuing all five of the Ripley novels she published between 1955 and 1991, which their admirers call the Ripliad. Fans of the first novel or its movie version will know that Tom (as Highsmith always called him), then a 25-year-old con artist in New York, went to Europe, where he killed a wealthy young man, assumed his identity for a time and managed to wind up with a share of his victim's fortune.
The second installment, "Ripley Under Ground" (1970), picks up Tom's life six years later. He's in his early 30s, handsome, charming and married to a Frenchwoman who is beautiful and rich. They live in a grand villa in a village near Paris that was paid for by her money. Tom devotes himself to gardening, painting, travel, music, poetry and improving his French. It's the life he believes he was born for, but soon we see its dark, dangerous side.
Tom is involved in a lucrative scam that involves selling forged paintings. Two people who know about the fraud threaten to expose it. Tom's partners, who run the London gallery where the bogus paintings are sold, are in a tizzy. Only Tom can see a way out of the looming disaster. That way, if persuasion fails, must be murder.
Tom is unlike Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the other great sociopath in recent American fiction. Lecter enjoys killing. Tom dislikes it, but people keep forcing him to kill them. To a remarkable degree, Highsmith makes us see this from Tom's point of view: Why won't these people just leave him alone? Reading the early chapters of "Ripley Under Ground," and even knowing the plot of the first novel, I found it hard to believe that this likable, tasteful young man was actually going to kill anyone. But kill he does.
It gives away nothing to discuss the murders. Everyone who picks up a Ripley novel knows from the outset that Tom is a killer. That's the beauty of the books: the contrast between Tom's glittering exterior and the darkness within. Our perverse pleasure comes from seeing him outwit the law and from the endless twists and turns of his personality -- the sudden rages, the perfect amorality.
"Ripley Under Ground" has two dramatic highlights, each built around a murder. In one, Tom kills a man in his wine cellar -- bangs him in the head with a fine bottle of Margaux. The problem becomes how to get the body out of the house with the live-in French housekeeper puttering about and various guests coming and going. (Tom's wife, happily, is in Greece.)
Tom's ordeal with the body in his basement becomes the blackest of comedies; it's a Marx Brothers sketch if the Marx Brothers had been serial killers. It ends when an exhausted Tom tosses his victim's body in the grave he has dug in the woods near his villa: "The body fell in with a thud positively delicious to Tom's ears."
By contrast, the second murder lacks any hint of comedy. Here, Tom does not want to hide the body. He wants it found but unrecognizable, and he is in the countryside without the tools he needs. He buys some gasoline and tries to cremate the body -- the "thing," he calls it -- but this leaves it "black, but not burnt, evidently only smoked." Tom pushes on: "He would have to demolish the skull, he realized, above all get rid of the teeth, and he did not want to come back tomorrow." Finally, using a rock, Tom shatters the skull, jawbone and teeth of someone who had been his friend before he made the mistake of threatening Tom's freedom.
The destruction of this body, told in awful detail, is as savage, as shocking a scene as you will ever read. Charming, urbane Tom Ripley reverts before our eyes from man to beast. Here as elsewhere, Highsmith delights in rubbing our noses in the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of civilization, beneath the fragile mask of sanity. There's no one else like her, and that's just as well, but she was an artist, one whose literary gifts were as exceptional as the rage that drove her fiction.