I subscribe to Ben Dolnick’s occasional posts about fiction, which I love. His recent missive on “the likable narrator” made me think of Tom Ripley, one of the most underrated characters in 20th century fiction. Patricia Highsmith created a complex, haunted character, with a shakey moral compass. Not likable. Nonetheless, you can’t help rooting for him as he murders and cheats and steals his way across Europe, longing to be someone better. Here is a passage at the center of The Talented Mr. Ripley, that I think is stunning:
Now Tom stopped. He had an impulse to go back, not necessarily to go back to the Italian, but to leave Dickie. Then his tension snapped suddenly. His shoulders relaxed, aching, and his breath began to come fast, through his mouth. He wanted to say at least ‘All right Dickie,’ to make it up to make Dickie forget it. He felt tongue-tied. He stared at Dickie’s blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie’s eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be that illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground. It was too much: the foreignness around him, the different language, his failure, and the fact that Dickie hated him. He felt suddenly surrounded by strangeness, by hostility. He felt Dickie yank his hands down from his eyes…Dickie yanked him by the arm Tom tripped over a door step. They were in the little bar opposite the post office. Tom heard Dickie ordering a brandy, specifying Italian brandy because he wasn’t good enough for French, Tom supposed. Tom drank it off, slightly sweetish, medicinal-tasting, drank three of them, like a magic medicine to bring him back to what his mind know was usually called reality: the smell of the Nazionale in Dickie’s hand, the curlycued grain in the wood of the bar under his fingers, the fact that his stomach had a hard pressure in it as if someone were holding a fist against his navel, the vivid anticipation of the long steep walk from here up to the house, the faint ache that would come in his thighs from it.‘I’m okay,’ Ton said in a quiet, deep voice.’ I don’t know what was the matter Must have been the heat that got me for a minute.’ He laughed a little. That was reality, laughing it off, making it silly, something that was more important than anything that had happened to him in the five weeks since he had met Dickie, maybe that had ever happened to him.”
It’s unfortunate that the four subsequent Ripley novels are disappointing. But this one is a masterpiece. It ranks with the best books of the 20th century. And I also loved Ben Dolnick’s most recent book, The Ghost Notebooks.