The Talented Mr. Ripley: A Masterpiece Cut from Another Master’s Masterpiece

The Talented Mr. Ripley is an enduring work.  Published over half a century ago, it covers the same territory as Henry James’s many novels about Americans abroad. This is planned:  The Ambassadors, James’s late masterpiece, is mentioned in passing when the narrative launches–that moment when the protagonist Tom is given his mission to go to Europe and bring back the heir to a ship-building fortune.


Tom keeps intending to read the book and doesn’t.

The ambassadors

The plots of Henry James’s novels are always the same:  older gentleman is sent to fetch a fairly handsome, wayward heir.  Somewhere there lurks a not-so-important third party that then completes a love triangle.  The artistry in James comes in the way he makes such a simple story happen in the attic-works of the noggin.  Simple events—a man standing as a woman sits—are reworked over and over again:  they achieve deep meanings in what James terms a “mental calculus.”  Reading Henry James has  frustrated a century of readers because there is little action, there’s just a lot of thinking, of anticipation, of anxiety–and this is the mood that saturates the narrative.

Matt Damon

From the start, we know that this is a familiar story:  the story of a rich American, Dickie Greenleaf, who refuses to return from post-war Europe to the life as an heir to a fortune.  Tom, a small-time, social climbing con-artist who barely has any connection to Dickie, is dispatched—a family messenger—to bring him back to the States.  Marge, a middle class American girl, fills out what becomes a love triangle:  one with barely muted homoerotic flashes and undercurrents of jealousy, class-envy, desperation.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a superbly crafted book:  the language is tight, the characters economically drawn, the scenarios highly probable, and infused with the horror that can only come from a tale of ratiocination.  There is a savagery that barely lurks–a tiger– beneath the highly crafted surface of the liquid prose.


Tom is a closet homosexual and crippled by the anxiety that he be seen as a “queer.”  And in this, there is genius, too; for Henry James—a life-long celibate—was widely considered a repressed homosexual, especially by writers of Highsmith’s generation, many of them queer like her, caught in the pre-Stonewall moment, who often looked around to whatever was available to recast in an image that dare not reveal itself.

Henry James Max Beerbohm

For these writers, James’s signature style—that constant, reflexive examination of people looking at people looking at people—was the protective shell that encased the velvet lined room of his closet.  Henry James was the kind of man who loved to speculate about what happens behind closed doors, simply by looking at the shoes outside a hotel room.  He writes about this peculiar pleasure.  It is an image that Max Beerbohm memorializes quite well.

This is precisely the position that Ripley always feels himself to be trapped in–that of helpless,  outsider.




The best scene occurs when Tom gains Dickie’s confidence.  Dickie is well-aware of Tom’s role as family agent but he doesn’t let on.  Tom, a quick study, realizes that Dickie has drawn a curtain between them—that Tom is about to fail miserably even before his task has begun.  He takes a chance–a wild, fumbling Statue of Liberty Play:  he reveals that he is being paid by Dickie’s father to simply deliver a message.

Statue of liberty 2

This revelation recasts the original mission into a joke and the two, into conspirators.   In this moment, the two are suddenly joined:  now the pair can have a great laugh at the father’s expense.  They can squander Tom’s money (which is really Dickie’s money, which is really Daddy’s money) together.  All this takes place within seconds and suddenly Tom is moving into Dickie’s villa.  And Dickie is soon to be dead.

Brilliant.  Simply brilliant.

Fall: My Favorite Time of Year

My favorite time of year is Fall.  The weather gets crisp.  I go on a spree and buy myself fancy duds:  wingtips, shirts, ties.  I turn it out in the Fall, because that is when everything changes:  with change comes newness; with newness, transformation; with transformation, redemption.  Like my characters, I am always searching for redemption.


Fall in Southern California is hard to spot for outsiders but it is there—a subtle grace note.  There is a certain smell.  The pace suddenly quickens—a pulse of energy—and people get out of their summer daze.  You know Fall has come, first, because of that Indian Summer that descends upon Los Angeles—the last gasp of Summer heavy in denial of its disappearance.  Just as suddenly, it’s over.  Women stop wearing strappy summer dresses.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what season my Detective, Robert, would like.  I think that Robert is melancholic.  He likes music played in a minor key.  Slow songs.  He doesn’t listen to lyrics.   He craves the summer but finds it tedious after a few weeks.  What he feels most comfortable in is the dead of Los Angeles winter; then, the temperatures get down to fifty and there are landslides off the Malibu coast.


I used to work at a department store—seasonal work that began in the Fall.  I was what they called a floater and I went from department to department:  a transient.  I learned that in certain departments, they would analyze customers by their colors.  “You are an Autumn,” I learned to tell people with confidence.  And then I would help them pick out colors.  “You are a Summer” and voila, another set of colors.


There was a logic to that.  Sometimes, I wish that storytelling were that way.  I wish that knowing that Robert is a creature of the Winter would allow me to pick out all the right accessories—the accoutrements that would set him off to fine effect.  The perfect villain, the perfect sidekick, the perfect socks–these would reveal themselves to me with the aid of a little cheat sheet I kept next to the computer.


Writing Exercise: Channeling Nostalgia


“A little voice inside my head said:  ‘Don’t look back, you can never look back.’”

————Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”


This line comes from one of those great hits that define a moment of my youth:  1984.  The year that Orwellian catastrophe was supposed to rain down upon us.  The year I turned lucky number 13. I was to become a teenager and, oh, how I waited for it with my nose pressed up to the dark, plate glass of the future. Lucky 13

Becoming a teenager meant soon becoming an adult; becoming an adult meant that I could eat candy for breakfast and chocolate ice cream for lunch; becoming an adult meant that I could go to an R-rated movie, legally.  1984 arrived…and I still had to get through half of it—I was a July baby—before I could suddenly ascend to the status of teenager.

Orwell 1984

This song lyric returns as the caption to the snapshot in the yellowed newsprint of the tabloid where I am forever my own personal star.  There:  I see myself at the arcade that was torn down to build a mall.  There:  my bicycle—red as a dragon—zips through the gridlock of Westwood Boulevard.  It is a mighty time—a time when I feel both big and tiny—I am growing.  I am constantly hungry.  That song, I want to forever hold that moment of not looking back.  I want a voice to tell me: you can never look back. I know I will run away some day. I will be forgotten.  I will burn brightly and quickly.  I will never turn into a pillar of salt.


So this never looking back is also about looking forward.  And every time I hear it, I look backward at me looking forward:  the endless reflection, my life—an Escher print.


So here’s the task:  characters are always looking forward and we are trained to have them look forward—that is the point of a plot, pushing one and all forward.  But the best characters in fiction have always looked backward.  Think Proust.  Think Marquez.

Who can forget this line that opens up A Hundred Years of SolitudeMany years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.  Even if you don’t remember it, even if you’ve never read it before, you will remember it now.  It is the nostalgia—the looking backwards—that haunts and magnifies the big-ness that is in that little line.


What does your character look back to?  What is the one memory that he holds dear?  What does he keep wrapped in the heart of his hearts like a rosebud?  Now, write out a little vignette of that memory, one that captures the loss, the grainy black and white quality, that that memory—a stuttering lightbulb—flashes before the mind’s eye.  I guarantee you:  this will get your story—a red bicycle zipping through lanes of traffic–going, going, gone.

A Mystery Writer’s Commute

My commute to UCLA is a full hour, each way…but I have been lucky enough to get into a carpool that picks me up at my doorway and drops me off, quite conveniently, only steps from my classroom.  I’m usually the driver—my wife hates to get behind the wheel–so it’s liberating not to play chauffeur.  I can look out the window or space out or clean my backpack.  I feel like a dog off to the park–leashless.  I always keep the window open just a crack.

Dog Out Car Window


The two women who play a part in my commute—Dianne and Linda–are bonded:  they’ve been commuting together for six months prior to my intrusion and they’re like mother and daughter—one much older and wiser, the other, ready to take the teachings of a woman whose every word is gospel.  Dianne is basically a mom without the blood ties (which makes her better than a mom) and she holds forth, dropping knowledge-bombs like Dear Abby.

I know their routine:  I know they want to crank up the talk radio–that my presence is an interruption of a morning ritual–and they would rather gab about movie stars and boyfriends and love, without my eavesdropping.  So, we exchange pleasantries and, after a while, I put on my noise cancelling headphones and watch from the backseat as their hands move, ever more animated—fluttering doves—and they lean in:  a pantomime of friendship.


We take the kind of route that only true LA people use—all shortcuts through scenic neighborhoods:  Bel Air, Sherman Oaks, Holmby Hills.  We’re hardly ever on the freeway but crest over the mountain pass of the Hollywood Hills, scuddering through Mulholland Drive.  The artist David Hockney memorialized this drive in one of his most famous paintings—an effusion of colors girdling in a twisting road through a part of LA that is as close to rural as the urban sprawl can ever allow.  Whenever tourist-friends come to LA, I take them on this route at night so they can see the grid of the city, like a jewelry case, glimmering.  The next day, I take them to see Hockney’s oversized painting—Mulholland Drive–at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Mulholland Drive

The painting documents the commute between David Hockney’s house and his painter’s studio.  And so I feel that during this special moment—these few weeks of commute—that the great British artist and I are fellow travelers;  doing this teaching has ignited the creative juices in my life; I feel like I’m going somewhere, headed to a place—a consequential place—a destination:  beautiful, lofty, cool.

I always listen to instrumental music.  Occasionally, I’ll check my iphone to see what the kids have posted to the Course Website on Discussion Board.  Then, I meditate.  It’s a pleasant time.  A time when I think about what I want to write but, due to circumstances, cannot yet.  It is the time before the starting gate when the horse and the jockey listen intently for the sound of a pistol that will make the animal’s muscles twitch so fast that, eventually, they foam.

horse at starting gate

Writer’s Spa Vacation: Labor Day & Burning Man

It’s Labor Day and what am I doing?  Getting stuff done.  The house got vacuumed; the dishes, washed; the laundry, folded; homework, sent out; manuscript sent, off.  Phew.  This is what Labor Day boils down to:  that thing that we call “me time.”  But here’s the paradox of true adulthood:  that so-called “me time” often just means running little errands that have fallen to the wayside.  Yes, I’m taking a deep bath in the burbling jacuzzi of a giant To Do List.


Most of my friends are off at Burning Man—running around naked, getting sunburnt, tripping out on LCD lights.  Every year, I get invited by some friend who wants to get her freak on in the desert.  I’ve never been.  Usually, I feel bad when I refuse.  But life always gets in the way.


“Ah, Khanh.  I know you’re a Burning Man person.”  And maybe there’s a bit of the burning man spirit in me (whatever that is) but, if so, then I already have enough of it to last the rest of the year.

Burning man

All throughout grad school, I taught at a summer program—FSP—that helps underrepresented kids get a jump start on the school year at UCLA.  And after grad school,  during my time as a professor, I was often out of town in places that were the exact opposite of fair, sweet, humid Iowa:  Beijing and Shanghai, Seattle and Paris, Korea and Morocco—all these were purposefully chosen to be a pendulum swing in the opposite direction.   I never did FSP after that.

Grinnell's Main Street Downtown:  where a tractor parade is not an uncommon sight.
Grinnell’s Main Street Downtown: where a tractor parade is not an uncommon sight.

But this year, I’m teaching at the program for the first time in almost a decade.  And—flood of memories:  I remember so much the things  I love about it—the importance of the work, the meaningfulness of the exchanges with the students who, themselves, are genuinely interested in learning.  And I also remember the fact that FSP is also bound up with Burning Man—the conscious decision not to do it.  Isn’t it funny how entirely unrelated things can stir the memory gland?

Yes, like clockwork I got asked again if I wanted to go Burning Man–this time by a friend who is, for lack of a better word, a stripper.    “No, I’m taking a spa vacation this year,” I responded cryptically.  I’d rather spend my Labor Day vacuuming.  I’d rather fold clothes.  Dostoyevsky worked in the fields in order to feel good about himself—thoughts like that flit through my head as I sweep the leaves off the porch.   At the end of that great sauna, I can sit with my computer on my lap with a frosty libation and type a few lines that someone, someone special, might enjoy reading.


Happy Labor Day!