Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

"Marge, you must understand that I don't love you," Tom said into the mirror in Dickie's voice, with Dickie's higher pitch on the emphasized words, with the little growl in his throat at the end of the phrase that could be pleasant or unpleasant, intimate or cool, according to Dickie's mood. "Marge, stop it!" Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge's throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left her, limp, on the floor. He was panting. He wiped his forehead the way Dickie did, reached for a handkerchief and, not finding any, got one from Dickie's top drawer, then resumed in front of the mirror. Even his parted lips looked like Dickie's lips when he was out of breath frm swimming, drawn down a little from his lower teeth. "You know why I had to do that " he said, still breathlessly, addressing Marge, though he watched himself in the mirror. "You were interfering between Tom and me--No, not that! But there is a bond between us!"

Warning: Spoilers within.

Tom Ripley's talents are unusual: They involve a little skill at mimicking, an ability to forge signatures, and a keen sense of observation. When The Talented Mr. Ripley opens, they are going to poor use: Tom is living in New York doing tax work, embarrassed by his apartment an his poverty, running a small scam in which he writes to artists charging them for nonexistent back taxes. When the father of a minor acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf, mistakes him for one of Dickie's close friends and asks him to travel to Italy to beg Dickie to return home, Tom welcomes it as an opportunity to escape the mediocrity of his existence.

But when Tom arrives, he isn't particularly interested in retrieving Dickie. In fact, he becomes enamored of Dickie's lifestyle: his leisure, his jetsetting, his style. He desperately wants to be liked by Dickie, but Dickie is a class-A dick: Selfish, aloof, dismissive of Tom and of his own companion Marge, whose adoration he returns with diffidence. Eventually, Tom, in a moment of severe frustration, decides that he could be a much better Dickie than Dickie himself, and murders him.

This is Tom's M.O.: He despises himself and his own background. It isn't about money; he doesn't even cash the checks that he collects from his tax scheme. It's about stepping out of the cage that is Tom Ripley and entering into the freedom that is Dickie Greenleaf. So easily does Tom do this that he is interviewed twice by the same police officer, once as Dickie, and once as himself, and raises no eyebrows.

A friend of mine likened this book to Dexter, and I think that's especially apt. Not only in the sense that Tom is a murderer, and that we sympathize with him because his victims are especially noxious, but because the thrust of its plot is predicated on the elaborate tricks that Tom has to play to fool Marge, Dickie's father, and the Italian police. His ruse requires another murder and another cover-up, and soon Dickie's disappearance is plastered all over the Italian newspapers. Like the best episodes of Dexter, The Talented Mr. Ripley always asks the question, "How could he possibly get out of this one?"

One thing I especially liked about it is that Highsmith avoids the sort of identity crisis that characterizes a lot of Dexter. Tom feels no guilt about slipping into Dickie's identity, about absconding with his clothes and possessions and becoming him. He challenges us as a character because he is a completely amoral being--unlike Dexter, with his rigid ethical code--and yet we cheer for him, and hate Dickie. Fifty-five years after The Talented Mr. Ripley, in our celebrity obsessed culture, I think it's easy to see why--certainly there are some people out there whose wealth and lifestyle we think we could use a lot better.

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