Unlike Durden, Bateman or "De Large", Tom Ripley isn't exactly that bored white male of privilege that becomes a killer out of a "So What" excess. Instead, our main character is a bit of a struggling young urbanite balancing a day job with amateur grifting skills. On initial glance he might appear to be a perfectly normal twentysomething in 1950's New York simply trying to get his piece of the pie in his own clever ways! However when a wealthy Socialite named Greenleaf enlists Tom to travel on Greanleaf's dime to Southern Italy in order to influence his son "Dickie" to return home and take over the family business, Tom Ripley's life changes completely! The change is positive and forward for Tom's social standing, but the reader is Privy to the inside Tom, a Sociopath willing to stop at nothing to be comfortable, happy and upwardly mobile... not even murder.
What follows is Tom's gradual insinuation into Dickie Greenleaf's life (along with that of Dickie's best friend Marge Sherwood) until the two are inseparable. Slowly but surely we see Tom's selfish inside takes over and reaches for more and more and more until he considers any hindrance to his greed an injustice. When Tom decides it's time not only to latch on to Dickie, but further to replace and become him the real game begins.
Highsmith is incredible in her ability to portray Ripley as a protagonist with open motivations (to the Reader) all the while showing his real nature in an almost ironic villainy that he never sees in himself. Tom realizes he's a multiple murderer, but never once shows an inkling of guilt or regret any further than the benefit that he's gained from his crimes might get him. As authorities, friends and family all close in to investigate his actions (under other identities... never as Tom, really), Ripley seems more annoyed at the unfairness of the situation that he has to be in to get off scott free, never does he lament his own actions.
It's this irony and pretense that fuels the interest in this novel. It's almost a reverse-mystery in which the reader knows just exactly "Who Done It" but watches from the inside as the remains of the players helplessly shuffle the clues. The only time this gets to be slow and dull is during Tom's living of the Asexual Playboy life across Europe. Once the heat is turned on Highsmith twists and turns the reader on a hidden test where only the reader and the protagonist have the crib sheet. And make no mistake, as the title indicates, Mr. Ripley is Talented. There are a couple of near misses, but in general, Tom is playing both sides of a liar's chess board where everyone's a pawn! Everyone but Tom Ripley himself, that is!
The Novel almost suffers from its own success, now in the 21st Century. With multiple sequels and various movie adaptations of the character's adventures, the Audience of this Century might not have the degree of dramatic tension that an Audience of 1955 might have wondering just how this character is going to be caught. Highsmith crafts the tale of The Talented Mister Ripley in such a way that the reader never roots for Tom Ripley's downfall, actually enjoying and deploring his wild ride at the same time. Taken on its own it was probably a much more effective novel back in '55 than it would be now even to the point that the Transgressions of Tom would seem exponentially more shocking to the 50's crowd prior to the preponderance of Cable TV and G. Gordon Liddy.
Still, The Talented Mr. Ripley is an excellent book in its own right! The unenviable task of balancing both sympathy and derision for a main character is juggled proficiently by Patricia Highsmith! It's sort of like watching a Major Party's press conference as the speaker has no idea that they're a creep and no idea how obvious it is to the viewer. Whether you can call this a good thing or not, Highsmith brings us one of the prototypical antagonistic protagonist seen so commonly in books and movies these days. The fact that the main character in this case simply can't see that he's a villain and actually views "Normal" people as having a little something wrong with them makes him even more compelling in a sick sort of way. One way or the other, though, if you think you can handle him, Ripley has to be read! It might make you uncomfortable on a lot of levels, but from a literary standpoint, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a surprisingly rewarding and oft times uncomfortably funny read.
Four Stars out of Five for Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley! Whether your cup of Tea is Lanterns on the Levee, The Catcher in the Rye or even American Psycho, this is a must read. Then again, if you're unable to handle the irony or the twisted shocks of modern novels, this one isn't for you either. But, hey, if you ever wondered what it might be like if Holden Caulfied really believed he was Jim Steele and then killed his room mate and thought it was a great Idea, run, don't walk to your local library!
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