These two novels are the last two-thirds of a trilogy by Earl Thompson. The first book is A Garden of Sand. I had read these some time ago and thought they were very well done. I didn’t intend to reread these, but I could get both books for fifty cents, and I just picked Tattoo up and dived right in; I read the first thirty pages right there in the thrift store.
These novels are vaguely autobiographical, which is what brought them to my attention in the first place. Thompson was born in Wichita and spent a good part of his life there, and much of the novels are set in Wichita. There aren’t many really good novels that are. Here is a section from Tattoo, with a description of World War Two-era Wichita:
“Standing on the corner of Market and Douglas in downtown Wichita in a pair of leaden Levi’s, a Falstaff beer T-shirt and run-down cowboy boots, he measured his reflection in Kress’ plate glass against the image of the soldier, salior, flyboy, and the occasional marine who marched so resolutely past, eyes fixed on eternity, turning the admiring glances of bobby-soxers and swingshifters, haunting the longings of wives and Gold and Blue mothers alike.”
This series reminds me of the Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell in both scope and in structure. What Thompson does for Wichita, Farrell does for the South Side of Chicago. A Garden of Sand follows the protagonist Jack from childhood through young manhood. Tattoo beginbs with Jack joining the Navy at fourteen by lying to a recruiter and serving in World War Two and Korea. The Devil to Pay takes the reader from his military discharge in 1953 to his first novel in 1971.
Thompson only wrote these three books and one other, Caldo Largo (the story of an alienated veteran who becomes a gun runner in the Caribbean), before he died in 1978. The Devil to Pay was published posthumously. Grade: B+.