This is not my first Jim Thompson novel. A number of years ago I read The Killer Inside Me, which, along with Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, ranks with the top ten novels which have tried to get within the mind of a psychopathic serial killer.
The book presently under consideration is, perhaps, Thompson’s most famous and infamous novel. Famous because of the two Hollywood adaptations of it, and infamous because of the allegorical surrealist ending which has both intrigued and baffled readers for decades.
The Getaway (1958) begins as a conventional crime novel about a bank robbery. The robbery happens at the very beginning of the book. The mastermind, Carter “Doc” McCoy, has recently been released from prison after Doc’s wife, Carol, seduced and bribed the parole board chairman. Doc has been holed up in a seedy hotel casing an isolated bank in a rural town. Except for killing a bank guard with a long distance rifle shot, Doc is not doing the dirty work himself. Ace thug Rudy Torrento and his young side kick have been assigned to actually rob the bank.
Just about everybody in The Getaway is out for themselves. Rudy kills the young side kick, then Doc tries to knock off Rudy to get him out of the way. After Doc plugs Rudy, Carol is waiting to pick him up and haul ass.
Of course, everything goes wrong. Rudy survives being shot by Doc and kidnaps a veterinarian and his wife. The wife goes crazy for Rudy and the milquetoast husband commits suicide. It seems to be a theme in The Getaway that girls love the bad boys. We learn that before meeting Doc, Carol was a homely librarian. Doc swept her off her feet and she eagerly joined Doc in his life of crime, even being disowned by her parents.
So Doc and Carol haul ass across the country with the loot being pursued by both the police and Rudy Tarrento. As Carol and Doc flee, the body count continues to mount up. In fact, it is alluded to that Doc and Carol have killed more people during their getaway than is directly recounted. Anybody that gets in their way or is an inconvenient witness is ruthlessly eliminated.
Finally Rudy and his new girlfriend catch up to Doc and Carol in a Southern California Motel. Doc kills both of them and he and Carol must again run like hell.
DON’T GO TO EL REY!
Here’s where things start getting weird. A lot of crime fiction aficionados don’t like the surrealist ending of The Getaway. I think that the ending is what makes this novel special. After all there’s a reason that a book published as a throw away pulp fiction paperback in the late 1950s is still in print and we are still reading it and talking about it.
Doc and Carol are headed for sanctuary in the Kingdom of El Rey which is described as a hideaway for fugitives in Mexico. El Rey, which means “The King” in Spanish, has lavish first class accommodations. In fact, residents are required to pay for first class accommodations, because they wanted everything first class in their previous lives. However, when your money runs out, you are banished to an outlying village. There is no food from the outside allowed in the village. The residents exiled from El Rey survive by cannibalizing each other. Therefore, couples who seek refuge in El Rey usually wind up murdering the other partner to conserve cash. That is, the ones who don’t commit suicide out of despair. So, in the midst of first class villas by the sea and unlimited gourmet food and drink, everyone in El Rey is miserably awaiting their ultimate demise.
This entire episode is heavy with symbolism. Doc and Carol have to strip naked and dive into a water filled pit to get to the cave hideaway. The rooms in the caves are just big enough to lie down in and Doc and Carol are separated by a wall of rock. Obviously, this represents death and the grave.
Then after coming up from the pit, Doc and Carol hide out in a lean two hidden inside a pile of cow manure. During the day, they are faced with swarms of flies and worms. It’s not difficult to figure out that this represents that, although still technically alive, Doc and Carol are decaying corpses.
Then Ma Santis arranges for Carol and Doc to be taken to Mexico by a Portuguese fishing boat Captain. The body count again mounts up when they have to kill the crew of a Coast Guard Patrol Boat. I think that the boat ride represents the ferrying of the dead across the River Stix to the underworld in Greek mythology.
El Rey is the Devil and his Kingdom is Hell. For a novel that is a fast paced conventional crime novel until 2/3 of the way through, all of this symbolism and allegory has been tough for a lot of readers to take.
Steve McQueen fired Thompson from writing the screenplay for his movie version of The Getaway, and totally jettisoned the El Rey ending. In McQueen’s movie version, Doc and Carol apparently escape into Mexico to live happily ever after. But “happy ever after” is a really boring ending isn’t it? And don’t Doc and Carol deserve to go to hell after the blood trail that they’ve left behind them? If Thompson had written an ending where Doc and Carol were captured and went to the Gas Chamber together, there would be the possibility of redemption through suffering. As it is, they get away to the place where they deserve to be and there is no possibility of redemption.
Interestingly, at one point in the novel, Doc and Carol hide out a with a group of migrant farm workers. Here among the poorest of the poor, Doc is happy. The novel indicates that Doc would have been content to stay with them forever. The irony is that Doc is happiest when he is with poor people who have nothing. When he reaches El Rey and has every material comfort, he is the most miserable. Be careful what you want, you might get it.
The Quentin Tarantino - Robert Rodriguez movie From Dusk Til Dawn follows the pattern of The Getaway. It begins as a conventional crime story involving the Gecko brothers, George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, fleeing from a robbery. Just like in The Getaway, they’re headed for El Rey. Half way through the movie, it becomes a horror film when the brothers stop off at a Mexican strip club run by vampires. On the commentary track, Tarantino talks a lot about the Kingdom of El Rey. Tarantino is a big fan of Jim Thompson and The Getaway.
So if there’s one thing to take away from The Getaway, it’s “Don’t Go To El Rey!”
Jim Thompson (1906 - 1977)