Novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) is receiving some well-deserved media attention these days thanks to Anthony Minghella’s opulent Hollywood version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The film has much to recommend it, but it sorely lacks Highsmith’s pitch-black humor and blithe amorality. Less an adaptation than a wholesale reinterpretation, Minghella’s film asks us to pity a hapless murderer and to reflect on the tragic aspect of his yearnings and motivations. Highsmith, on the other hand, prefers to play the Devil’s advocate – if not the very Devil himself – by inviting us to identify with every twisted compulsion and petty indignation swirling inside the head of a sociopath.
The delicious perversity of Highsmith’s 1955 novel (and its four sequels) lies in the casual normalization of murderous impulses. Because we’re privy to killer Tom Ripley’s worst thoughts, he comes to represent our uncensored inner bastard. Even his "good" thoughts are selfishly compromised. Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is about the snobbish voice of superiority that resides within each of us, the voice that proclaims we’re smarter and more sensitive than the fools around us. It’s also the voice that on occasion steps over the line and sneers that the damn fools would be better off dead, especially the ones who’ve acquired money and prestige that we’ve been denied.
The novel begins by immediately pulling us into the wary and suspicious mind of twenty-five year old Tom Ripley, small-time New York scam artist:
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him.
Ripley has good reason to fear exposure: he’s lately been impersonating an Internal Revenue agent and telling selected individuals that they owe additional money to the government. Unfortunately, it’s a lousy scheme because Tom can’t cash the checks most of his victims invariably make payable to the IRS. Ripley’s resources are dwindling – he’s jobless and has been sponging off friends and relatives. His brain is in overdrive searching for a new and improved swindle.
The mystery man pursuing Tom introduces himself: Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy shipbuilder. Greenleaf has heard that Tom is acquainted with Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, who moved to Italy two years ago as an aspiring painter. Greenleaf’s wife is dying of leukemia and he wants his son back in America. Tom’s memory of Dickie is sketchy, but he pretends otherwise. Throughout the conversation, while Tom dazzles Greenleaf with fabricated anecdotes, Highsmith keeps us clued-in to the netherworld of Tom’s reptilian consciousness: "He was bored, God-damned bloody bored, bored, bored! He wanted to be back at the bar, by himself." Greenleaf sees only the surface charm on display. After a couple of drinks, he’s begging Tom to accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy in order to visit Dickie and convince the young man to return home.
Highsmith quickly establishes her themes of pursuit and paranoia with those first four words: "Tom glanced behind him…" Her symbolic use of the color green is evident in the first sentence, too. Green is shorthand for money, of course, and "Green Cage" – the name of Tom’s barroom hangout – is a cynical metaphor for wealth as a kind of class entrapment. It also foreshadows Tom’s imprisonment in another’s man identity. He will eventually assume the name and bank account of his murder victim, Dickie Greenleaf, whose fecund name suggests a veritable garden of cash. Highsmith is masterful with double-barreled ironies. By the novel’s end, Ripley will be a free man imprisoned in riches.
Although we are always inside Ripley’s head, Highsmith never offers us the seductive camaraderie of a first-person narrator. Ripley doesn’t relate his own story. Instead, his thoughts and actions are presented by an elusive and clinical third-person voice that conceals as much as it reveals. We find ourselves in a moral vacuum, desensitized to Ripley’s bleak world view and curiously drawn to his cold logic. Highsmith’s cryptic minimalism has lost none of its disturbing pungency over the years. Here is Dickie’s murder:
Tom swung a left-handed blow with the oar against the side of Dickie’s head. The edge of the oar cut a dull gash that filled with a line of blood as Tom watched. Dickie was on the bottom of the boat, twisted, twisting. Dickie gave a groaning roar of protest that frightened Tom with its loudness and its strength. Tom hit him in the side of the neck, three times, chopping strokes with the edge of the oar, as if the oar were an axe and Dickie’s neck a tree.
The most startling of the book’s "green" metaphors is the association of Dickie’s murder with the cutting down of a tree. One wonders while reading the passage if the metaphor is Highsmith’s or Tom’s? So thoroughly is Highsmith’s voice blended with Tom’s that we can accept either answer or both. If Tom is momentarily imagining Dickie as a tree, it’s an apt illustration of psychotic dissociation. Dickie has been objectified into a commodity or a fetish – a money tree, as it were. The metaphor also suggests the gloriously demented image of Ripley as a lethal frontiersman clearing the forest and carving out his destiny.
The complex point-of-view techniques employed in The Talented Mr. Ripley are a literary style pioneered by Henry James, to whom Highsmith pays overt homage by modeling her novel on James’s 1903 masterpiece, The Ambassadors. Perhaps the boldest postmodern joke in Highsmith’s novel is Mr. Greenleaf recommending that Tom read James’s book, a copy of which Tom later contemplates stealing. Both novels are filtered through the sensibility of a "central intelligence," an American protagonist who has an "awakening" when he visits Europe on a mission to retrieve the prodigal son of a wealthy businessman.
Highsmith doesn’t just "steal" the outline of James’s plot, she turns James upside down, shakes the pennies from his pockets, and gives him a wedgie for good measure. While she has been criticized for portraying the murderous Tom Ripley as a repressed homosexual, it seems valid to surmise that Highsmith – who was herself a lesbian – is spoofing the homosexual overtones that play throughout The Ambassadors. Indeed, Highsmith humorously parallels so many aspects of James’s novel – including his elaborate symbolic use of the color green – that the two novels in a sense enhance one another, like the pairing of Charlotte Bront�’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley has long had a cult following as a subversive black comedy. It’s time for her novel to be recognized for what it is: a 20th century literary classic.
– Bob Wake