Written by Patricia Highsmith, who was herself a horrible person, The Talented Mr. Ripley is more than just a classic crime novel. It’s a character study of a horrible person who, in spite of your conscience, has your support in almost whatever he does.
Thomas Ripley is a twenty-five-year-old metropolitan drifter who gets the opportunity of a lifetime. His distant acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf, is living a bohemian existence in Italy, much against the wishes of his millionaire father. Greenleaf, Sr. offers to send Tom to Italy in the hopes he can convince the prodigal son to return home. What begins as a posh vacation to Europe on someone else’s tab becomes an obsession for Mr. Ripley. He grows to envy and admire Dickie, so much that he weasels his way between Dickie and his girlfriend Marge, and the two chaps become inseparable.
Things get a little weird. Tom tries on Dickie’s clothes and practices his gestures. Marge accuses the boys of being a little too chummy. Sensing Dickie is turning on him, Tom realizes he is losing a companion (and more), and he panics. It’s a matter of time before Mr. Ripley kills somebody. But the murder, or rather murders, Tom commits aren’t so spectacular as his efforts to cover them up.
Moviewatching Fun Fact: I haven’t seen the movie yet. It has a younger Matt Damon evading European police, so I expect it’ll seem like a prequel that could be called The Bourne Condescension.
This book is damn good, even if it’s written with less panache than I’d expected. Highsmith’s prose is calculated and serene like its central character. This muffles the tension in places and lulls you into a sense of security. Tom is occasionally vulnerable, but you don’t get the impression that he’s as terrified as, say, I would be to talk to a police inspector in his circumstances. But that’s just how he rolls–even when he’s living the good life in Venice or Rome, he rarely seems present. Tom’s not fully plugged in to his pleasures, and neither is he, it seems, in to his troubles. You can see how this helps him succeed.
Alright, Is He Gay?
Now, the really fascinating thing is this identity crisis that–
Wait, Hold On.
Is he really? In the later novels he’s married. Like, to a lady. And Highsmith herself said he wasn’t gay.
I know. But let me explain.
Most readers assume Highsmith is being coy with Ripley’s sexual preference, which is another one of this novel’s engaging facets–it complicates Tom’s motivations toward Dickie. You could argue that there’s more explicit evidence in The Great Gatsby that Nick Carraway is homosexual than there is here for Tom (because see, there’s this easy-to-miss bit in Gatsby that– well, that’s a whole other discussion). But I don’t think she’s keeping Tom’s sexual orientation ambiguous at all. Just unconfirmed.
It’s like a protagonist who really seems like a candy-holic. But you can’t really say, since at no point is it mentioned that he’s had so much as a bag of M&M’s. Still, when his attention isn’t fixed on himself, it’s on candy, and how “attractive” it all is. It’s hard to ignore that part when a lollipop is described to be “lithe as a tiger.” When it comes to other types of edibles, he either ignores them or thoroughly despises them in a catty manner. Other characters suspect he has a sweet tooth. You wonder why he specifically burglarizes a chocolatier. Even if there’s no part where this protagonist has himself a Sugar Daddy, I think this guy really likes candy.
The gay thing is fun to speculate, but not as fascinating as the massive identity crisis occurring in this book. You basically start by looking at what makes Tom such a successful con.
“His stories were so good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”
Considering this, you look at the bewildering web he’s woven– another lie to stay ahead of the last, and so on– and you see that, yes, Tom is at least temporarily believing every vivid fabrication he feeds the other characters. What must that do to one’s mental state? That’s part of what makes Tom special, and why he’s one of the 0.01% of individuals who could believably pull off his scheme.
Interestingly, there comes a point where he must drop his impersonation of Dickie and revert back to Tom, and he doesn’t immediately know how to be himself again. He has to start consciously acting like Thomas Ripley, but before he can do that, he has to decide who Thomas Ripley is.
This has me grinning. You keep reading to see how he’ll stay ahead of the cops and the irritating goodniks he’s so adeptly duping. To figure exactly what is going on with Mr. Ripley, though, is probably worth another read altogether.