Patricia Highsmith,
The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Coward-McCann, 1955;
Vintage Crime, 1999)

First off, I must admit that I did read this book because I had heard the movie was being made. After reading an intriguing preview article in Vanity Fair last year, and the realization that strangely enough, Matt Damon and Jude Law do look a lot alike, I went in search of the novel that was causing all the hullabaloo.

This was almost a year ago now, and though I have since seen the movie (and greatly admired it), I did read the novel since and was completely fascinated by Tom Ripley, Highsmith's amoral protagonist. For those of you curious about the differences and similarities between the book and film, scroll down a bit and you'll find my take on that comparison. I have just reread the novel for a book club I run, and I am pleased to say it gets better the second time around.

For those of you who haven't seen the film or tackled the book, the story centers around the title young man, a charming and desperately lonely sociopath from whose point of view the story is revealed. Tom is sent to Italy by Herbert Greanleaf, a businessman desperate for his errant son's return from the Bohemian life and still hoping he will take up family business and responsibilities. Dickie Greenleaf, a beautiful, careless embodiment of the idle upperclass, represents everything that Tom has always felt he deserved but has never had. Bored and solitary in New York, Tom embraces his chance to start a new and glorious life. Using his talents for mimicry and an honest, blundering mask, Tom charms Dickie and manages to gain his trust and friendship days after arriving. Ripley, pleased with himself, settles in to enjoy his newfound "brother" and greatly improved lifestyle.

As Ripley ingratiates himself further and further into Dickie's life, falling in love with every aspect of his existence, he is also repeatedly reminded of his own inadequacies and how he doesn't fit in this world as he thought he should. Dickie has everything a young man should -- a sunny American girlfriend Marge, a romanticly rustic house, a boat, and his mediocre talent as a painter giving him a vague sense of purpose -- and is preciously unaware of how rare his advantages are. Dickie doesn't help Tom's worries as he grows tired of Ripley's clinging nature and attempts to disengage from the friendship, unknowingly crushing Tom's obsessive affection while raising his considerable anger. Tom begins to see how unworthy Dickie is of the hand that fate has dealt him, and hatches an inspiringly simple plan to take that fate for himself.

From here the novel takes off, revealing Ripley's truest, violent nature and brilliant imagination in subtle, disturbing prose. Highsmith is a masterful writer, and her prose is both sparely poetic and careful, implying all kinds of conclusions without ever stating anything outright. It is uncanny how easily she places the reader right into Ripley's considerably warped point of view and makes his progression seem as logical as any other young man's ambitions. Ripley embodies the traditional American dream of a nobody becoming a well-respected and successful somebody -- he just goes about attaining it in a decidedly chilling and unique way. Ripley's casual and remorseless attitude towards death and murder reveal him to be a truly amoral person. Given a choice between right and wrong, he will choose the most practical decision -- morality never enters into his reasoning.

Despite his coldness and often hideously cavalier attitude toward the crimes he comes to commit, Highsmith also, importantly, shows Tom's all too familiar humanity. In an act of oblivious cruelty, Dickie decides that Tom is no longer interesting and flat out tells him that he should take off. Tom's anguish is so palpable that it tears at the heart of anyone who's ever felt unsure of another's affection. The reader is inextricably drawn into Ripley's well of loneliness and sense of his own shortcomings, a state of mind that most of us have experienced and remember well, if painfully.

As the novel continues, however, the book shifts away from the emotional and toward the more plot-driven question of whether Ripley will ever be caught for his crimes. Highsmith's great trick, similar to Hitchcock's famous twist in Psycho, is making Ripley so ordinary and so likable that the reader is constantly drawn back into his logic. You want him to get away, and you find yourself reading along, thinking, "Oh of course, he had to kill him, it was the only way," until you realize just what you've just thought. The tension builds fantastically toward the finish of the story as everything that could incriminate Ripley starts appearing thick and fast. With a mixture of awe and guilt, the reader speeds ahead to discover whether Ripley's deft and carefully imagined lies will save him at the last.

For those of you who have seen the movie, and are curious about it's difference from the book, the two are admittedly very different. The movie managed to capture the atmosphere and the main characters beautifully -- not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination -- but the second half of the film veers away from the second half of the book. The rising tensions remain the same, as does the concentration on just how much Ripley can get away with. The film, however, alters Ripley's dilemma by making his inquisitors into acquaintances and friends, led by the ever suspicious Marge, while in the book most of the pressure comes from the police. By giving Ripley two new characters to relate to, the film also allows him more humanity and flickers of conscience, as well as a fleeting chance for redemption. The novel seldom allows Ripley any such escape or hesitation in his casual, calculating evil. To put it simply, the film has more of a heart while the book remains cold but fascinating.

For those of you who've read that Ripley was Matt Damon's "gay" movie, well, you'd be right. In the film, the director and cast made the conscious decision to make Ripley gay. In fact, the furtive glances and almost overly casual gestures of physical affection that Ripley allows himself with Dickie in the film raise both the audience's sympathy and Tom's weaker side another notch. In the book, it is not so clear. Ripley is emotionally quite disconnected, and so his fierce affection for Dickie is almost that of a worshipping child rather than a man in love or lust. His feelings are often conflicting and, to Highsmith's credit, no pat label will fit the emotional path he takes.

What the reader has to remember again and again is that you are inside Ripley's head, and that every word is skewed toward his notion of reality. Reader's can conclude for themselves Ripley's motives and feelings, as he will never tell them outright. This, I think, is the most intriguing quality of reading the novel -- what the reader brings to the book and their own perceptions of emotion and morals informs the story almost more than anything Highsmith lays before you. In that way, she manages to insinuate just how much Ripley is like the reader, and as uncomfortable as that may be to conclude, it also rings impressively true.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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