Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thieves Like Us (1937)

Edward Anderson's second of only two novels is a quiet and glum affair born of the Great Depression, yet proceeds in such stately and plainspoken fashion that it almost belies the variously lurid goings-on documented. Three hard-bitten jailhouse buddies—Elmo "Chicamaw" Mobley, T.W. "T-Dub" Masefield, and Bowie Bowers—bust out of an Oklahoma prison and return to the life they know, crime, setting off on a spree of bank robberies across Texas. They live high, blow the dough, and go at it again. It appears to be the way they roll. Most of the action is related from the point of view of Bowers, who during the course of the story takes up with a teen-age girl named Keechie. The couple, during periods when the gang is laying low, set up house and lead a decent, simple, and appealing way of life. At the time, Anderson was hailed as a contemporary of literary figures such as Hemingway and Faulkner, and bank robbery, of course, was all the vogue—figures such as John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde were huge folk heroes. The title derives from remarks made by the characters about bankers and other capitalists, a none too popular bunch in '30s America. If this novel lacks the complexities explored more fully by, say, Theodore Dreiser, the world that Anderson constructs (or reflects) will nonetheless be familiar to anyone who knows Dreiser or other American naturalists: the game is stacked against the little guy, routinely obliterated like an insect by circumstances, some of his own making, some not. There's no point in caring and what if there were, etc. To Anderson's credit, and perhaps the reason he won and still wins very high accolades, he never overplays his hand. The bank robbers are hardly admirable—not even Bowers, though he comes closest—but the system in which they live would never help them anyway. Anderson lets the talkiness of his characters tell this part of the story with no histrionics and always by careful, deliberate measure. There's a feeling of inexorable fate and doom closing down on practically every page even as events move along briskly, and even as pleasure, joy, and self-satisfaction are briefly found by the thieves. Although the novel has been in and out of print many times during its history, it has been made into two movies, one directed by Nicholas Ray in 1949 (called They Live by Night) and the other by Robert Altman in 1974, neither of which I have seen.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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