Friday, August 08, 2008

Pretty Boy Floyd

I had been meaning to read the work of Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, Evening Star, Last Picture Show, and others. Prolific. Talented. For some reason, I began with a collaboration: Pretty Boy Floyd.

Two things struck me immediately as I read the book. First, that the authors (McMurtry collaborated with Dianna Ossana) were skillful in giving us a feel of the Depression Era as well as keeping the pacing of the book lively. Second, that they painted an astonishingly sympathetic portrait of Charlie Floyd.

Reading this made me pause. By giving us a likable character and not addressing the crimes committed, not really exploring the morality, were the authors somehow doing a disservice, or was my impression of the book colored by my own judgment regarding crime. Or perhaps the writers were only telling a story, all moral issues aside.

Reading this book made me immediately consider the likes of Tupac Shakur or Snoop Dog. Both men likable. Both men confessed criminals (Snoop was a member of the Crips and sold cocaine and also was at one point accused of murder; Tupac was accused of sexual abuse, assault, and attempted murder, among other things). And both men, like Floyd, somehow used their criminal past to help parley their talents (real or imagined) into celebrity status.

Given my own perspective of a life of crime, I read the book with a critical eye. I kept asking these questions, which for me weren't answered satisfactorily: Why has Floyd become a criminal? He is cheating on his wife and his girlfriend, with numerous other women---why has the author made it seem almost laudable that he at least provides some financial support for them from the gleanings of his criminal life? What is there about a criminal life that sparks a perverse celebrity, a celebrity where people are more likely to identify with Charlie or Snoop Dog than they are with law enforcement and law abiding individuals? What does this say about our society? What does this say about the authors?

Some would lean over at this point and say: "Just read the book, dammit." Okay. But the questions are still there, and those questions and comparisons mar the book for me. Just a personal observation.

12 comments:

Donnetta Lee said...

Good observation, Stewart. We seem to make the bad guys good guys in this crooked sort of way. As an aside: Pretty Boy had relatives in the small town I am from in Oklahoma. He used to hide out there, I was told by my grandmother. The locals back in the day all knew about it. Interesting.
Donnetta

Stewart Sternberg said...

Donetta, he was known, and I suppose considering how the populace felt about authority and the disenfranchisement against the system that allowed the banks to come and foreclose on their homesteads, that I understand their behavior. What also strikes me though between the Pretty Boy and Tupac comparison is that many supporters of Tupac weren't disenfranchised folk coping with poverty and discrimination, they were white suburbanites with too much disposable income and a mantle of teenage angst to set them off.

Charles Gramlich said...

Folks have long had a love affair with outlaws. I don't really understand it myself. But we see it with Billy the Kid and Jesse James, and the Highwaymen before that. I think folks see it as being "free" or something. I just don't have respect for criminals myself, including Shakur and Broadhus.

Vwriter said...

Have you ever been to the spot where Pretty Boy was shot and killed by the authorities? It's treated like a national monument by people who drive by. Locals tell the story to anyone who expresses an interest in the legend. Every detail is embellished at the local diner, which specializes, oddly enough, in Elvis Burgers (peanut butter and bananas on a half pound of beef).

You might be interested in the oftime expressed sentiment by the community round the spot that "he was one of us."

Stewart Sternberg said...

So..."he was one of us"...what, an idiot??? Honest to god, the readings I have done on him showed that he had little morals, that he was impulsive, and not terribly bright. One of us? Oddly, his own family, while poor, weren't among those who had their farm stripped from them by the banks during the foreclosure storm.

How sad that an area is so desperate for notoriety that it needs to cling to such a pathetic figure. Even Al Capone, when talked about, is seen as a brutal, dispicable individual, not glorified as something larger than life.

I have to do a posting about Scarface, the film, and the rap culture and gang culture. If you own the anniversary dvd, check out the featurette where the gangbanging rappers pay homage to the character portrayed in the film (a violent, abusive lowlife)

L.A. Mitchell said...

This post raises some excellent points. I'm speaking in terms of the criminals that fill history, but maybe it's a way to scramble for perspectives we were robbed of in vanilla texts.

Oh, and the Elvis burgers...eww.

SQT said...

I like McMurtry, especially Lonesome Dove.

I wonder if it's the love affair with the cowboy (like Jesse James) that allows his sympathy with Floyd...I don't know. I'm trying to make some sense of why you'd humanize the guy. Maybe a Robin Hood thing...

As far as Tupac and Snoop go, I think they're just thugs who found a way to make a living off their notoriety. Sickening when you think about it.

William Jones said...

Stewart, I haven't read the book, but I have read a few on other "famous" criminals from the era. During this period, the FBI (or G-Men) were not very popular with the public - (consider the economic crisis, the Prohibition Act that ended in '32, and a rather zealous Hoover). So the FBI started a publicity campaign for itself. Hoover put money into buying "articles" that spoke well of the FBI, and funded some films.

Meanwhile, the "gangsters" were becoming just as popular. Films were being made of them as well (you can count the vast number of film stars who became famous playing gangsters in the 1930s).

Several authors have argued that the criminals were viewed as "common heroes fighting a system."

I can't say that is still the cause, but it is worth contrasting against. There have been several times in U.S. history where the "bad guys" were famous and popular. Even England had a few. That "robbing hood" (AKA Robin Hood) comes to mind. :) The history of that "figure" has become so altered that the truth is hard to define. But sometimes the myths speak to what the people thought or wanted the criminal to be.

Susan Miller said...

I read Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan a few weeks ago, and it brought up these same issues for me. Although or maybe because it was a fiction piece, I found myself suprisingly sympathetic toward the main character who was essentially a serial killer. It was the perspective, the human struggle that drew me in and possibly the lack of or need for defense in this character's mind that redeemed him a bit for me. He simply was what he was.

Wonderfully intersting post, Stu.

Zoe Winters said...

I like your new blog layout.

Vwriter said...

Damn, Stewart. When I saw the new black and white look and the criminal snapshots, my first thought was that I had gone to www.policeblotter.com!

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I don't know about the freedom factor. Or rather, maybe the outlaw is acting out that which the average person would to do but wont because it is so antisocial.

William Jones, I agree. As society becomes more restrictive and as people feel a greater need to rebel, the rebel, even the sick unhealthy bastard that is the outlaw, is fulfills some inner need. Sublimation.

Sue, it's been a while. I will have to look at the Julius Winisome. Thanks Zoe.