Get­ting lost in world of Tom Ri­p­ley

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - ALEXAN­DER CHEE CRITIC AT LARGE Chee is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Dart­mouth and the au­thor of the nov­els “The Queen of the Night” and “Ed­in­burgh.”

A few months ago, I found my­self read­ing, at last, Pa­tri­cia High­smith’s “The Boy Who Fol­lowed Ri­p­ley.”

I had meant to read it be­fore this — I’d fallen for Ri­p­ley, you could say, like many. And then I’d drifted off. But now, years later, like many, I was des­per­ate to break the spell, to read any­thing else other than the news and get lost in that in­stead. I just needed a break in the hor­ror and some­thing that wasn’t mis­spelled by the pres­i­dent or by some­one im­i­tat­ing his mis­spellings.

I’d read “The Tal­ented Mr. Ri­p­ley” and “Ri­p­ley Un­der Ground” a few years ago, and watched both film adap­ta­tions — “Pur­ple Noon” and then the epony­mous An­thony Minghella pic­ture, star­ring Matt Da­mon, Jude Law and Gwenyth Pal­trow.

I had even come to an un­der­stand­ing of that first novel that gave me the twinge I get when I might be­gin writ­ing a novel of my own: Marge, the orig­i­nal Tom Ri­p­ley’s girl­friend, is a writer to no pur­pose in the plot. It does not mat­ter, at all, to the story. She is es­sen­tially there to be made a fool of — and to scream the alarm that Ri­p­ley has killed Dickie, so that it is all the more fright­en­ing when he gets away with it. For a writer as de­lib­er­ate as High­smith, who even wrote a book on how to write sus­pense, that makes this de­tail po­ten­tially some­thing of a tell — a de­tail left over from an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal episode, in­cluded be­cause that is how it hap­pened. I have no other proof of this, other than a life spent writ­ing and teach­ing writ­ing. And that the novel is eas­ily an ex­pan­sion of her the­ory of what hap­pened, what she be­lieves as she rages at Ri­p­ley by the end. It was easy to imag­ine Marge re­turn­ing to New York and writ­ing this novel — it could even have been her way of telling him she knew this to be true.

When I turned to “Ri­p­ley, Un­der Ground” next, I read it in part to see if my the­ory held up. That novel I found to be an en­ter­tain­ing if some­what lighter art forgery novel, with des­per­ate mo­ments. Years af­ter I read it, I came across a story of an art forgery ring in a small town in France that op­er­ated with de­tails fa­mil­iar to any­one who’d read the novel. And while these de­tails could be the de­tails of any art forgery ring in France, the strange half novel I was writ­ing in my mind picked up again, and I imag­ined my fic­tional Marge/High­smith continuing to fol­low the mur­derer and writ­ing more of these nov­els as a way of telling him she knew what he was up to, even if no one be­lieved her. When I thought of what Ri­p­ley might feel, find­ing a novel about him­self by her, I un­der­stood also that it was po­ten­tially a game he would not want to bring to an end, be­cause per­haps be­ing known this way would be the only in­ti­macy some­one like Ri­p­ley could al­low. I then imag­ined an heir — a pro­tégé or off­spring who comes into pos­ses­sion of ev­i­dence of this af­ter the writer’s death — but the idea came to noth­ing, and I let the trail of my novel idea go cold there.

Re­cently, des­per­ate to es­cape the hor­ror of the news, I found my­self read­ing the re­views of “The Boy Who Fol­lowed Ri­p­ley” on Ama­zon and the complaints, in­sist­ing the novel was slight, were so in­ter­est­ing that I de­cided it was time to re­turn to High­smith’s most fa­mous cre­ation and the strange uni­verse I was build­ing around him. And so, I bought the novel, and went back in.

Who fol­lows whom

“The Boy Who Fol­lowed Ri­p­ley” is the penul­ti­mate Ri­p­ley novel; the lone­li­ness of a mur­derer is most cer­tainly the topic. There is even a pro­tégé. Set sev­eral years af­ter “Ri­p­ley Un­der Ground,” we find him a hap­pily mar­ried man, liv­ing in that small town out­side Paris, where he is con­tent to man­age the pro­duc­tion and sale of his suc­cess­ful art forg­eries in a way that is de­signed not to at­tract sus­pi­cion. His wife, Heloise, is French, in­de­pen­dent, mostly in­cu­ri­ous about the spe­cific de­tails of her hus­band’s pro­fes­sion be­cause she is an heiress; the de­tach­ment with which she re­gards him is al­most ex­otic by our stan­dards of mar­riage. He is liv­ing a happy coun­try life, es­sen­tially un­trou­bled, un­til the day his neigh­bor’s gar­dener walks down the road.

The hand­some young gar­dener in­tro­duces him­self as Billy Rollins, an Amer­i­can. He is quickly re­vealed to be a millionaire with a se­cret: His real name is Frank Pier­son, he knows Ri­p­ley is sell­ing these sus­pi­cious paint­ings, as his fa­ther had col­lected one, and his own sleuthing into the paint­ing’s prove­nance has led him here.

An­other se­cret is soon re­vealed: Frank is also the sub­ject of an in­ter­na­tional man­hunt. His fa­ther fell off a cliff while his son was with him at his home in Maine, and al­though Frank is not be­lieved to be the mur­derer, he con­fesses he is, af­ter a few long talks with Ri­p­ley. And, at first, Ri­p­ley be­lieves him. And so be­gins an ob­ses­sion that lasts the length of the novel. He tries to save Frank from him­self by teach­ing him how to be like him. Or some­thing like him.

The novel would per­haps be more prop­erly called “The Boy Ri­p­ley Fol­lowed.” Ri­p­ley helps him hide from au­thor­i­ties, even gets him a new pass­port and a new name. The in­cu­ri­ous Heloise grows cu­ri­ous as her hus­band soon seems ob­sessed with tak­ing care of Frank’s ev­ery need, even ask­ing if he’s in love with him. They run off to­gether to Ber­lin for a few days, meant to cheer Frank up, and they do seem to be so clearly in love — and yet Ri­p­ley, if he knows it, seems obliv­i­ous to it. But per­haps not Frank, who re­coils with de­spair at any at­tempt by Ri­p­ley to get him to re­turn to Amer­ica and his life there. He longs only to be in Europe with the art thief he’s caught. The novel’s clear­est irony is that this young man did what he did to es­cape a dom­i­neer­ing fa­ther — only to find an­other one in Ri­p­ley, who tries, very hard, to con­trol ev­ery as­pect of his life.

In Ber­lin, af­ter a few ad­ven­tures, Frank is kid­napped and Ri­p­ley res­cues him, de­cid­ing on a mad­cap es­cape that in­cludes dress­ing in drag, as a dis­guise, to no ap­par­ent pur­pose in the plot, ex­cept that it pro­vides us with a lav­ish visit to a gay club. And here for me was the es­cape I did not ex­pect, to 1960s Ber­lin, and a glimpse of those peo­ple, in that city. I al­most did not care that these lovers never seemed to kiss. I al­most didn’t care what hap­pened next in the story. For one of the first times in my read­ing life, I found I wanted the set more than the story.

My fa­vorite part of the novel is when Ri­p­ley ar­ranges a meet­ing with the kid­nap­pers at a club called Der Hump and in­vents a drag name for him­self on the spot.

“‘And who are you?’ asked a young man in Levi’s so worn out, they re­vealed the ab­sence of any un­der­wear. ‘Mable,’ Tom said.”

Ri­p­ley soon re­al­izes he hasn’t both­ered with nail pol­ish, and pon­ders the ap­pear­ance of the other guests he can see in “long dress drag,” flirt­ing with a man named Rollo, also in drag, and then danc­ing with him, bare­foot, in the disco. And this was when I re­al­ized I had fallen, deeply, just as I’d wanted, out of the one world, into this one.

Ri­p­ley re-imag­ined

I un­der­stood the re­view­ers. When we even­tu­ally left Ber­lin, I was al­most as crushed as Frank, who didn’t want to leave, much less go home. I even ex­pected him to re­veal he was the kid­nap­per, and that he was set­ting up a se­cret life for him­self with the money. But this was not the story.

In­stead, Ri­p­ley goes to such ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to res­cue Frank that the fam­ily in­sists on meet­ing him, and soon Ri­p­ley heads back to the U.S. with the way­ward Frank, in­tent on get­ting him to re­turn to his life and live with the mur­der of his fa­ther. He tries var­i­ous at­tempts to force Frank to deal with what he doesn’t want to deal with, in­sist­ing the young man can go home and carry on as if the mur­der didn’t hap­pen. This be­ing High­smith, there are a few last tragic turns, and af­ter the end­ing, I pon­dered the life of a young man who had gone to France to es­cape the hor­ror of his tiny life, only to be taught by some­one he imag­ined would un­der­stand his own need to es­cape and rein­vent him­self, and who, in­stead, de­spaired as his idol be­came like the fa­ther he’d hated.

My own de­sire to es­cape and rein­vent, to leave this one world for any of the ones I kept build­ing along­side this one, left me a lit­tle like the dis­ap­pointed re­view­ers, in that I also had writ­ten in the kiss be­tween the lovers that never hap­pens. But my own, imag­i­nary, un­writ­ten novel turned to this: Would my imag­i­nary High­smith be try­ing to tell her Ri­p­ley that his only in­ti­macy was with some­one who had also mur­dered some­one — that they were the only two who could un­der­stand each other? Ri­p­ley fos­ters a con­nec­tion to Frank un­like any the other has with any­one else in their lives. There’s a rea­son Ri­p­ley’s wife is jeal­ous — Frank knows him in a way she never will.

A char­ac­ter like Ri­p­ley fas­ci­nates be­cause he is one of those pro­tag­o­nists who doesn’t much change — the novel’s trans­for­ma­tion is en­acted in­side the reader. You are the one who changes, con­fronted with the baroque moral sur­face of a mur­derer’s lone­li­ness.

I’ll read the last one next, the one I skipped also, continuing my lit­tle game to its end. What is vis­i­ble to me now is how an­other novel, the one all of this cu­rios­ity is re­ally feed­ing, will likely ap­pear then.

M. Sharkey Houghton Mif­flin Har­court

ALEXAN­DER CHEE’S sum­mer read­ing is Pa­tri­cia High­smith.

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