Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

Sometimes you read a sequel and find yourself half-incredulous of where you find the protagonist when the curtain rises. Granted, I wasn’t surprised that Tom Ripley, the sociopathic forger/imitator/high-class fraudster who got away with a couple murders in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, was living the good life in the French countryside and enjoying some steady income from a few rackets. What threw me was his being married, for one, and also his now having co-conspirators.

And the award for murkiest jacket design goes to...

This is the guy who spent months on his own European Grand Tour after murdering his acquaintance and assuming the victim’s identity. Part of the intensity of the first Ripley novel was that 25-year-old Tom was so utterly alone. He was the killer Raskolnikov was trying to be– nearly unflappable in his scheme to hide his crimes and faintly misanthropic to the end.

Now he has a practical Ocean’s Eleven of Idiots.

Tom is orchestrating a great art scandal: the famous painter Derwatt, once thought dead from suicide, is alive and producing pieces that continue to sell for the highest sums. In reality, Derwatt is dead, and Tom has another painter, Bernard Tufts, forging his former mentor’s work. The only other individuals in on the con are the two boobs who run the gallery and the man who oversees the Derwatt art school/supply arm of the operation.

Donning a fake beard, Ripley is called upon to assume the role of Derwatt in public (we’re going off the assumption that growing a beard would make you unrecognizable), because along comes an American collector who is convinced the new Derwatt paintings are fakes. The facade doesn’t hold up, and Ripley is interestingly more pissed that the American sees through his Derwatt performance than the forged paintings. Well, one wine bottle to the head later, Tom’s killed somebody.

Perhaps Tom has changed enough in the last five years that he can tolerate the meddling and dependence of a wife and some partners-in-crime, but even allowing that, Ripley Under Ground becomes a slightly different book from what I wanted. The crime caper of this sequel may not be as fun and inventive as the first novel’s, for reasons aforementioned, but there’s still some fascinating stuff going on.

Digging Himself Deeper

The forger Bernard is the hapless pawn in all this, which doesn’t go unappreciated by Tom: being himself a forger of identities, Tom sympathizes with the painter who must commit his artistry to being something other than himself. At one point Tom argues that the forger must be more skilled than the original artist; great art comes naturally to the artist, but the imitator must sweat and toil harder to produce the convincing fake.

What kind of painter would Bernard be if he didn’t have to be Derwatt? What kind of man would Tom be if he could live an honest life? Could he?

“Tom could have wept for Bernard… Bernard was as miserable as someone, who was not an actor, trying to act on a stage and hating every minute of it.”

Bernard is more like…us, and he cannot handle the identity crisis inherent in spending several years being someone else. Not only is Tom trying to keep the Derwatt operation from being exposed, he’s trying to keep his Talented Mr. Tufts from snapping and confessing everything to the authorities.

The Tom-Bernard interaction is a fascinating one, and it becomes darkly amusing when Tom cooly demands the neurotic artist to help him exhume a body and lie to the cops. But they are two false halves of the same dead artist, each with authentic skill that begs reevaluation of creations we dismiss as “fakes.”

The book’s events are far more morbid but somehow less disturbing: Highsmith is playing Ripley’s callousness for laughs now, having him literally rise from the grave to go take a bath and fix himself a sandwich. This robs the story of the gravity it otherwise deserves. People have toyed with the idea of canonizing Highsmith not only as one of the 20th century’s crime novel greats, but the American literary fiction greats. If she wanted to, she probably could have been. But in this second Ripley book I felt her shying a bit from the dark, personal cellar that made The Talented Mr. Ripley impossible to confine to a genre.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

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.

This cover unsettles me. Because there's a big hanging light there that's doing nothing for this room.

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?

Yes.

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.