Richard Bachman’s Thinner: Billy, Taduz, and the Cycle of Revenge (Also, Richie Ginelli!)
At first it seems like a simple horror story: A family man wrongs a Gypsy who subsequently curses him with a horrific fate. Understandably, the main selling point was the curse itself, obese Billy Halleck doomed to grow thinner and thinner until he wastes away completely. But the story is so much more, a complex and disturbing exploration of culpability and the vicious cycle of revenge.
(My main source for discussion is the novel, but I will also utilize references and images from Tom Holland’s excellent film, a quite faithful adaptation)
At first we our naturally inclined to view Taduz as pure evil. After all, what cruel and disgusting fates to inflict on a man who only accidentally killed his daughter and the cop and judge who white-washed the inquest. However, the novel goes more into detail about the background of the Lemke clan and all the injustices they have faced over the year. Susanna’s death, denied justice by the legal system, is only the latest in a long line of offenses inflicted on the Gypsies by the town folk. Always a different town, always a different authority, but always the same bum deal. SSDD. The officer who conveniently neglectfulness to give Billy a breathalizer test, himself a victim of another one of Taduz’s curse, does the best summation, about how the Gypsies are always driven out of town, how they are treated like dirt by “proper” members of society, their children beaten and their women raped. And now, on top of a lifetime of persecution, Taduz’s daughter is killed and no one seems to give a damn.
But don’t get me wrong. Taduz is absolutely NOT justified in the evil he puts on Billy, the cop, and the judge. It’s such a painful and horrific curse. Sadistic. For the majority of the story, Billy is this victim and Taduz the perpetrator of the evil, regardless of how it began. So, who do I root for?
RICHIE “THE HAMMER” GINELLI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Perhaps my favorite Stephen King character. Ginelli is a charismatic, pragmatic, worldly man, and in a horror story plagued by a Gypsy curse, he was able to uses his wits, resources and tenacity to emerge as the unlikely anti-hero. Ginelli is not a ghostbuster, priest or paranormal investigator; he’s a seemingly run of the mill hood. And yet he drops his skepticism as soon as he… sees his friend Billy’s situation, and commits himself, quite capably presents a very real threat to the evil magician. I just like the idea of a secular man rising to this supernatural occasion without hesitation and with his tenacious gusto, and his attitude “The definition of an a-hole is a guy who doesn’t believe what he’s seeing.” And there is a certain satisfaction in seeing Ginelli pose a serious threat to Taduz, a magician whose cruelty inspires such hatred.
Some badass quotes from the book:
Ginelli: I don’t have much time, asshole, so listen good. You tell the old man that next time I won’t be shooting high or low or at empty cars. Tell him William Halleck says to take it off. You got that?
Samuel Lemke: You don’t understand. He’ll never take it off. He’s the last of the great Magyar chiefs-his heart is a brick. Please, mister, I’ll remember, but he’ll nevertake it off.
Ginelli: Bricks can be crushed. Tell him that too.
Later, confronting Gina, Taduz’s fierce and beautiful great-granddaughter:
Ginelli: What do you think this is, a game? You throw a curse onto someone with a wife and a kid, you think it is a game? You think he hit that woman, your gramma, on purpose? You think he had a contract on her? You think the Mafia had a contract put out on your old grandmother?”
Ginelli is saying exactly what we’re all thinking and it is oh so satisfying to see him kick ace and take names. Ginelli is, of course, a vicious thug, an unrepentant criminal and murderer. So why do I like him? It it his loyalty to his friend, his downright fearlessness and tenacity? Or is it just because he stands as as the only capable opponent to such a loathsomely wicked man?
Taduz Lemke is like John Doe from Se7en or Jigsaw. While they may have have had legitimate grievences (Lemke especially), any point they were trying to make is overshadowed by the shear savagry and disgusting nature of their disproportionate punishment. Taduz had every right to be outraged at the injustices towards his daughter, his family, his whole people, but he had no right to put such a slow and painful and deliberately cruel death on anyone. So you’ve got “The Sight”, do you old man? And we all know you have the power! So why don’t you use it for good? Why don’t you help your own family out of their troubles, instead of malicious curses. Why does your ‘justice’ have to take such an ugly, slow form? Who is this mobster bursting in, killing your dogs and threatening to throw acid in the face of your children, and hey, why am I cheering him on?
By the end, Taduz seems to come to his senses. He realizes that Ginelli is even more ruthless than he is, that The Hammer will never cease to fall until he’s nailed in his own victory. Taduz knows that Ginelli absolutely will hurt women and children, the very family he was trying to do justice to in the first place. So he takes the curse off, but he cannot take the consequences back. All in all, there have already four dead people killed at this point, and how many lives ruined and yet to be? So, old man, was it worth it? You never pretended it would bring your daughter back, but is your family better for all this evil you’ve continued? Is anything?
This story is a cycle of everyone doing wrong, and no one owning up to it. You shouldn’t distract your husband when he’s driving. You shouldn’t let your wife distract you. You shouldn’t walk out into the street without looking both ways. You shouldn’t white wash the case and let a man get off scot-free on vehicular manslaughter. You shouldn’t curse peope, either with your Gypsy magic or your mobster buddy. You shouldn’t wish your wife dead and make her eat the curse either. Evil only begets evil, and two wrongs make a right, and no one in this whole sordid story is willing to accept that and take responsibility for their own sins. Everything is always somebody else’s fault, somebody else’s responsibility, and somebody else must pay. It’s push, push, POOSH, and by the end, it’s Billy’s 14 year old daughter Linda, the only true innocent in the whole damn book, who ends up paying.
When I first read it, I thought that Billy, horrified at the fate he’s passed onto his daughter, decided to finally take on responsibility himself and eat the curse. But now I wonder if the Purpufargade Ansiket had actually been taken care of by Linda and Heidi (I mean, how many people can one curse- likened by Lemke to a baby- possess), and Billy was just eating a regular pie, wallowing in his self-inflicted misery.
My textual basis? Although the pie was still pulsating after Heidi and Linda had got to it, it stops when Billy goes to take his piece:
“Why not?’ he whispered, and pulled the wrapping off the pie. Now it was still again. Now it was just a strawberry pie that looked extremely tempting in spite of the earliness of the hour.
And as Heidi herself had said, he still needed all the calories he could get.
‘Eat hearty,’ Billy Halleck whispered in the sunny silence of the kitchen, and cut himself a piece of Gypsy pie.”
The pie has stopped pulsating with the sickening life of the Purpufargade Ansiket and it looks like something delicious to eat. Recall that had no appetite or hunger for the duration of the curse. And what if the mention of calories gained by eating a pie is not ironic.
I think that Billy surviving his family, uncursed, actually makes for a stronger ending that is both more thematically fitting and perhaps even more disturbing then magically rotting to death. Billy’s arc through the novel is a descent from irresponsibility and denial into outright evil. First he tells himself that hitting Susana wasn’t his fault, trying to blame Heidi for distracting him. Then when Lemke refuses to accept his notion of collective responsibility (“No poosh!”), Billy puts The Curse of The White Man From Town on Lemke, siccing his vicious, merciless and all-around badass mobster friend Richie Ginelli on the whole Gypsy clan. Although at this point Billy still impotently tells Richie not to hurt anybody. Billy grows more bitter and hateful towards his wife and Dr. Hopley, so by the end is sadistically pleased to pass the curse on to Heidi. Throughout the book Billy is trying to push responsibility onto others, with less and less regard for the innocent. In their last meeting Lemke tells Billy “Everyone pays, even for thinks they dint do.”
So, is the discovery that Linda also ate of the pie the catalyst that finally pushes a man already this low to finally take responsibility for his crimes? OR is this the final revelation of just how evil Billy has become? Recall that in the beginning of the book, it is mentioned that Billy never lost sleep or his appetite over the questionably scrupulous practices of his law firm. So with that in mind, could Billy seeing the pie as tempting food be genuine, concerned with his own appetites and desires, even with the full knowledge of the monstrous fate he has given to his daughter, his descent to the dark side complete? I think this believable moral degradation (we’re with Billy every step of the way) of an ordinary man into a complete monster is far more frightening than the simple visceral horror of people rotted to death. Seeing a body waste a way is disgusting. Seeing a soul turn black chills you to the bone.
I think that Richard Bachman intended the ending to be Billy dying with his family, finally taking his piece of the pie. But what if Billy actually survives, healthy and happy in his wickedness? I prefer my interpretation, and I think it gives you a lot of contemplation to chew on.
Eat hearty, my friends.