There are certain popular writers—Agatha Christie, for example, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—whose signature characters have seized the public imagination so pervasively that they escape the confines of their original pages and enter into the realm of mythology, available for new stories and interpretations long after their creators’ deaths. The mid-century American novelist Patricia Highsmith—most remembered for her urbane but disturbing psychological thrillers—hasn’t quite achieved the household familiarity of Christie or Doyle, but this is surely only a matter of time.
Starting with the 1950 publication of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, the source of the famous Hitchcock film released just a year later, Highsmith’s works have spawned countless adaptations for film, television, radio, and theater, a trend that continues to the present day and shows no sign of abating. Most of these, of course, have revolved around Highsmith’s most enduring creation, the debonair, sociopathic con-man Tom Ripley, who made his debut in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and was the titular subject of four subsequent novels published over nearly forty years, concluding with Ripley Under Water in 1991.
Ripley strode onto the silver screen almost immediately, with René Clément’s 1960 French adaptation of the first Ripley novel, Plein Soleil (English title: Purple Noon), which launched the career of heartthrob Alain Delon in the role of the sensitive, social-climbing American with a hidden talent for deception and murder. In various screen adaptations over the decades, Ripley has been portrayed by actors as diverse as Denis Hopper, John Malkovich, and Matt Damon, a testament to the complexity and versatility of the character.
Ripley’s enduring appeal resides in his deeply paradoxical nature, an unsettling configuration of personality traits that manages to both charm and repulse. He’s resourceful, hard-working, charismatic, highly intelligent. His deep-seated hunger for refinement and luxury extends beyond the trappings of wealth: he has a passion for the sophisticated beauty of what might be called high culture. But Ripley is also a brutal sociopath, capable on a moment’s notice of bludgeoning a friend to death or garroting a stranger with scarcely a ruffle to his poise. Ripley claims not to enjoy killing, but clearly, occasionally he does, and why not? He’s good at it.
Then there’s the murky matter of Ripley’s sexuality, which—with his powerful romantic attraction to both men and women—might be characterized as ambiguous, although opaque might be the more accurate description. The sexual act itself seems less important to Ripley than his need to possess beautiful people and secure their loyalty and admiration. Ripley can be calculating and detached, but he is also passionate and sensitive, and it’s telling that some of his more brutal acts are not motivated by profit but in response to some perceived social slight. Underneath the composed demeanor, there’s a twisted mess of damaged psychology that Ripley seems perfectly aware of, but prefers not to think about. Hints surface now and then. Ripley’s childhood is kept tantalizingly sketchy, but we know he was raised in Boston by an abusive aunt, and suffered through a childhood characterized by deprivation, both financial and emotional. But why dwell on ugly things? Once he no longer needs his aunt’s meager financial support, he cuts her out of his life.
Ripley is a striking, if subversive, embodiment of that great American icon, the self-made man, the entrepreneurial go-getter who only needs the right opportunity to prove his talent. Don’t like who you are, where you come from, what you have? Make your own destiny! Dress for the job you want, not the job you have! Ripley pushes the fake-it-til-you-make-it credo to its logical conclusion by becoming a complete imposter, his entire persona a self-invented fabrication. One of Highsmith’s great insights is that the constructed identity is Ripley’s true personality, the actualization of his real selfhood. Ripley can only be himself by being someone else.
Highsmith adored her charming psychopath, and identified with him openly, occasionally signing her correspondence “Tom.” She invested Ripley with several parallels to her own life—her self-chosen exile in Europe, her troubled childhood (Highsmith had a vexed and competitive relationship with her mother, who once confessed that she’d tried to abort her by drinking turpentine), and, perhaps, her own cunning and resourcefulness. It’s easy to guess that Ripley served as a kind of wish-fulfillment character, a brilliant loner unshackled from the constraints of conventional morality, unafraid to resolve stubborn social or financial obstacles with the judicious application of violence. Decades before Walter White, Ripley was the one who knocked.
Highsmith was no murderer, but she’s nonetheless a fascinating character in her own right, the subject of several high profile biographies since her death in 1995, including Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2003), and more recently Judith Schenckar’s The Talented Ms. Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith (2009), as well as an admiring memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s (2003), written by a former lover, Marianne Meaker (best known as M.E. Kerr, a pioneering author of young adult novels).
By all accounts, Highsmith was an eccentric and difficult woman. She was an alcoholic, anorexic, chain-smoking lesbian who claimed to despise women but who nonetheless pursued a prolific and often destructive romantic life, tending to seek out women (and a few men) in already existing relationships. Although politically left-leaning, she was also unapologetically racist, particularly with regard to blacks and Jews, thus inspiring the admirably blunt characterization of a recent New York Post headline: “The Drunk Bisexual Racist Behind Cate Blanchett’s New Movie.”
Notoriously secretive—perhaps not so surprising for a lesbian who came of age in an era when homosexuality was condemned as both pathological and criminal—Highsmith lied habitually and reflexively, even going so far as to falsify entries in her private journals. Like many literary eccentrics, she adored cats, and kept several—nothing too remarkable there—but she also adored snails, often carrying several living specimens about her person or tucked into her purse with a scrap or two of lettuce.
Highsmith saw herself as a highbrow literary novelist, a psychological writer in the mode of Dostoyevsky (and many contemporary European critics, including Graham Greene, agreed) but felt under-appreciated by the American literary world, where her early success and commercial popularity characterized her as a “crime novelist.” It’s a problem most literary writers would be happy to have. With numerous bestsellers and film adaptations under her belt, Highsmith raked in money, and complained about taxes.
After her commercial popularity began to wane in the 1970s, she became increasingly withdrawn, retreating into the solitude of the bunker-like house she’d had built in Switzerland. Although she sank deeply into alcoholism, she never stopped writing fiction and essays, and apparently amused herself by penning “pseudonymous letters to newspapers railing against minorities of every stripe.” Highsmith died alone in a Swiss hospital in 1995, but her funeral service was packed with literary luminaries, friends and admirers. Her will bestowed millions of dollars to Yaddo, the writers colony where she’d composed Strangers on a Train.
Highsmith’s appeal to filmmakers has not diminished with her death, and if anything, seems to be accelerating. In 2014, Hossein Amini received critical acclaim for his screen adaptation of Highsmith’s 1964 thriller The Two Faces of January, featuring Kristen Dunst. Andy Goddard’s A Kind of Murder, based on Highsmith’s The Blunderer, premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival. But the biggest buzz has been reserved for the recent release of Todd Hayne’s Carol—based Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), originally published under the pen name Claire Morgan—which has resulted in a wave of discussion recasting Highsmith as a pioneer in lesbian fiction. As a result, over the last several months there’s been a frenzy of newspaper and magazine articles reexamining Highsmith’s life and work, undoubtedly spawning legions of new fans.
The current surge of interest in Patricia Highsmith and her work makes it the perfect moment for the recent publication of David Winner’s new novel, Tyler’s Last, a savage, affectionate homage which takes satiric aim at both Tom Ripley and the difficult woman who created him. This is surely no task for the timid. Both character and author come with complex, detailed mythologies and passionate cults of admirers.
Fortunately, Winner sidesteps the potentially dreary task of generating a story wholly consistent with the minutiae of his source material by leaving Ripley and Highsmith out of it altogether. This is the story of Tyler and Eve. Of course, there’s no mistaking whom these two are modeled upon. Tyler, the casually murderous bon vivant, the titular subject of a series of bestselling psychological thrillers. Eve, the famous ex-pat novelist, rancorous, narcissistic, alcoholic, and more than slightly unhinged in her bitter old age. Winner has switched up their backstories and circumstances a bit, too, giving himself the full freedom to construct his own madcap plot while maintaining plenty of parallels to Highsmith’s books and life.
In the opening chapter of Tyler’s Last, we meet an aging Tyler, diminished in both power and circumstance, temporarily exiled to a “dreary Spanish beach town” after the collapse of a long-running criminal scheme. He has nearly exhausted his finances. His car is in disrepair. He is lonely. His wife Ornella (an Italian parallel to Ripley’s French wife Heloise) has run off to Morocco for a holiday with Dominique, her “little French lover.”
Sweating profusely in an expensive Italian shirt, Tyler trudges home from a disappointing trip to the post office—no postcards from Morocco—pausing on some urine-soaked steps to step around the rotting corpse of a seagull. As he approaches his shabby villa, on loan from a criminal associate, he suffers the indignity of having to walk past a veranda full of drunken British hooligans on holiday, who sneer at him (“fucking poof”) and mockingly inquire about his absent wife. Alas, with his bum knee and stiff joints, all Tyler can do is glare and wistfully recall the days when he would have forcefully replied with a straight razor.
Inside the villa, Tyler heads straight for the vodka when the phone rings. At this he brightens, hoping to hear at last from Ornella. But the mocking voice on the other end is male and American, and claims to be Cal Thorton, a lover from Tyler’s buried past. Preposterous! Cal died in Italy decades ago! Tyler knows this for certain because he himself murdered Cal and then—better safe than sorry—set his corpse on fire. Thus the plot is set in motion, with Tyler determined to find the identity of the impostor who threatens to expose one of Tyler’s best-kept secrets.
Once suave, quick-witted, and deadly, Tyler suffers all the indignities of age. He struggles with modern technology, finds contemporary culture baffling and distasteful, and is slowly realizing that all the mid-century benchmarks of class and refinement he’s devoted his life to cultivating have somehow become antiquated and ridiculous. As a younger man, Tyler had adapted to any setting as fluidly as a chameleon, effortlessly insinuating himself into any strata of society, high or low. But something has mysteriously shifted, the old structures of order have crumbled, and in this newfangled egalitarian culture, even his manner of speaking marks him as pretentiously formal, sexist, racist, colonialist, a dinosaur stuck in the tarry past. The impenetrable shell of personality and style he’s built around himself has begun to crack, threatening to expose the bullied working-class kid from Queens he’s kept locked inside.
If time has been unkind to Tyler, it has been even crueler to Eve, the elderly writer composing his story, who, not at all coincidentally, is also unhappily exiled in Spain. Alcoholism and the early stages of Parkinson’s disease have forced Eve into a humiliating dependency on the two women in her entourage, Elizabeth Smalls, her long-time assistant, once sycophantic but now increasingly domineering, and Elizabeth’s “awful Spanish girlfriend,” a young freeloader enjoying the privilege of helping her lover boss around a famous novelist. Eve responds to their patronizing ministrations with vitriol and abuse, and dreams of escape.
Like Tyler, Eve is haunted by a lover from the past. As a bestselling author with a lesbian following, Eve once enjoyed the upper hand in countless affairs with adoring fans—Elizabeth Smalls among them—but that well ran dry long ago. Among the many bitter fruits of age is the realization that you will never again be anyone’s object of sexual passion. Eve is therefore utterly shocked when, in her early seventies, she’s accosted in a bar by an attractive young woman named Tab, an aspiring Dutch artist obsessed with the lawless freedom of Eve’s most famous character. A brief, electrifying affair ensues, driven by Tab’s unhealthy fascination with Tyler. Eve—quite uncharacteristically—falls in love. She invites Tab to live with her, a grave miscalculation. By then Tab has already arrived at the disappointing realization that authors are not as interesting as their books. It was Tyler, the remorseless man of action, who stoked Tab’s lust, not this needy, gray-haired septuagenarian. The affair, Tab cruelly declares, has grown “dull”—and with that, she abruptly vanishes from Eve’s life.
Now in her eighties, Eve has stewed over the loss and humiliation of the affair for nearly a decade. But recently, thanks to a new computer purchased by Elizabeth Smalls, Eve has discovered the internet and begins obsessively cyberstalking the “Dutch cunt” who once spurned her. She’s infuriated to discover that Tab has become a well-known artist. Abusive emails fired off to contact forms go unanswered but notice of an upcoming gallery show in Rotterdam catches Eve’s eye.
Enlisting the help of Pedro, her somewhat clueless driver, Eve launches a harebrained scheme to escape the watchful eyes of Elizabeth Smalls and her awful Spanish girlfriend and hightail it to Rotterdam where she’ll hunt down Tab at last, and… well, then what?
Eve’s a bit muddled on this point, confused as to whether she’d like to rekindle the affair or exact brutal revenge. Given the sadomasochistic nature of her past sexual encounters with Tab, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices.
When not preoccupied with alcoholic fantasies of revenge, Eve is busy scribbling in her “cahiers,” composing the alternating chapters that chronicle Tyler’s misadventures, which in turn echo with parallel events, characters and sentiments recognizably drawn from Eve’s life, transformed into the stuff of fiction. This double vision generates an odd narrative resonance—something akin to an audio feedback loop—that grows more and more disconcerting as the book progresses. On one level, this is Winner’s deconstruction of the fictional process, a live demonstration of how the moments and sentiments from a writer’s life are transmuted into plot and characterization. But as the stories of Eve and Tyler progress, a curious undertow develops. Tyler has always been Eve’s fantasy of a remorseless, powerful version of herself, so it is strange to find the aging Tyler of these chapters, bumbling, frequently ridiculous, and—most puzzling of all—subjected to the same parodic narrative tone as Eve’s chapters, sly winks and nudges that color his undertakings with deep dramatic irony. So these don’t exactly feel like chapters Eve could have written—she’ may be a brilliant novelist, but she’s too demonstrably indifferent to her own shortcomings to satirize them in fiction. Paradoxically, the satirical, slightly campy tone of the Tyler’s narrative—because it is identical to Eve’s—makes Tyler seem more real, which is say, he seems to occupy the same plane of existence as Eve, not so much her fictional creation as he is her doppelganger, breathing the air of the same world.
The solipsistic interplay between Eve’s chapters and Tyler’s amplifies the emotional impact of both stories—the humiliations of age are somehow twice as poignant when even your fantasy double is subjected to them—but the real heart of the book kicks into life about halfway-through with the introduction of a new point-of-view character, an ordinary American teenager who has the wretched luck of crossing paths with Tyler. I’d be doing the reader a disservice if I revealed too much about this development, except to note that when viewed through the eyes of an everyday suburban kid, Tyler suddenly seems terrifyingly real and we see him clearly for the monstrous, self-deluded psychopath he really is.
Although there’s a lot going on under the surface of this slim novel, Tyler’s Last is, first and foremost, a lot of fun, an absurd, cleverly-plotted romp across continents with generous helpings of sex and violence along the way. It’s a brilliant parody, and it’s also much more than that; the term suggests something secondary or derivative but Tyler’s Last is a fully realized work that stands firmly on its own original merits. Oh yes, Highsmith fans will delight in the bounty of sly allusions and Easter Eggs seamlessly packed into the story, but that’s just one of the many pleasures on offer here. Readers arriving with only the most cursory knowledge of Ripley or Highsmith—or even none at all—will be drawn in from the first chapter, and have no difficulty following the demented burlesque of obsession and vengeance that unfolds. Eve and Tyler, for all their ridiculousness, emerge as roundly developed characters, multi-faceted, internally motivated, surprisingly independent of the sources they so effectively satirize.
In his first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, Winner demonstrated a subtle faculty for wringing genuine emotion out of implausibly absurd circumstances, and this talent is very much on display in Tyler’s Last, all the more impressive in a book conceived as both tribute and parody. But the best comedies are grounded in pathos; without real stakes and real pain, comedy loses its bite and the laughs fall flat. That’s not the case here. Winner’s careful attention to the fragile interior worlds of Eva and Tyler—the bitter disgrace of age and fading talent, the impotent fury of sexual rejection—endows them with a humanity unusual in broad comedic satire. That in itself may be the truest homage to the late, great, talented Ms. Highsmith.
© Tyler C. Gore 2016