In the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act Reading Room in Washington, D.C., there are 15,786 pages devoted just to Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
And odds are, there’s not a kind word among them.
But the same could not be said of Bill Brooks’ new novel, Pretty Boy: The Epic Life of Pretty Boy Floyd (Tom Doherty Associates, 2003). In 316 pages, the local author aims to put a human face on the outlaw who made a name for himself in the late ’20s and ’30s by stealing cars, romancing women, knocking over banks and shooting his way out of sticky situations.
How well Brooks’ approach succeeds depends on whether you buy the idea that Pretty Boy was a gangster with a heart — a man who was largely a victim of circumstance and his own desires. Actually, you don’t have to accept that the real Charles Arthur Floyd was any of those things — just that Brooks’ fictionalized version of the man measures up.
Although I had a bit of a hard time swallowing that premise at first, it became more plausible as the story rolled along — especially as Floyd finds himself dealing increasingly with the bizarre fallout from the choices he’s made.
The strange repercussions include a jolt to his love life after a girlfriend suffers a head wound in a shootout (Floyd frets that she’ll pass out during sex). The bank robber also must deal with his wife, Ruby, who dons an Indian costume to perform in a traveling stage show, “Crime Does Not Pay.” Even more dramatically, Pretty Boy faces the practical difficulties of going on the lam after the legendary 1933 Kansas City Massacre, in which he and two collaborators completely botch an attempt to seize fellow hoodlum Jelly Nash from police — killing four cops (including an FBI agent) and Nash in the process.
Although historians debate whether Floyd was even involved in the shootout, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared then that Floyd must be eliminated — which eventually led to his storied demise.
Pretty Boy, by the way, won his nickname early in his notorious career when a clerk robbed in a Kroger payroll heist told a reporter he was “just a boy, a pretty boy with apple cheeks.” A mug shot that accompanies the FBI’s on-line dossier on the renegade hints at those reputed good looks: Floyd possesses a thick-necked sort of handsomeness, capped off with wavy hair and oddly flat eyes.
Floyd blazed his way through the heartland around the same time that Bonnie and Clyde were tearing up the Southwest. (Brooks’ Bonnie and Clyde: A Love Story is, in fact, set to be released on this coming Valentine’s Day.)
Brooks tells Xpress that he wove his fictional account from the often-conflicting pieces of biographical information he dug up on the outlaw. However, most of the characters and incidents in Pretty Boy are based on recorded history. The author estimates that his book is about half fact, half fiction — with the author filling in missing pieces of conversation and the like.
“I didn’t make up anything whole cloth,” he declares.
High-priced liquor and beautiful women
Since the story starts at the end, it doesn’t take long to figure out that life has turned out pretty badly for Pretty Boy. In a series of deathbed flashbacks, we learn the rough outline of his life — his hardscrabble beginnings on the farm in Oklahoma, his obsessive (if inconstant) love for his wife and the intoxicating lure of mind-bending substances and other women.
“As I lay dying, I am swaying to the soft seductive song of cocaine pills and high-priced liquor, and beautiful women,” muses the delirious Floyd. “I am lying in hotel rooms under the blue-black color of night atop chenille bedspreads naked and faceless with naked and faceless others.”
If nothing else, Pretty Boy offers a thrill ride through a down-at-the-heels Midwest as the stylish bank robber and a changing cast of brothers-in-arms execute a series of increasingly violent crimes. Brooks’ 12th novel features a brisk-moving plot, colorful characters and well-drawn scenes. Those who thirstily gulp down gangster stories probably will find much to like here.
But Brooks — who has established himself in the Western genre — is striving for something more with his first stab at crime fiction. Pretty Boy‘s dust-jacket blurb mentions the “combination of lyricism and earthy prose” that characterized an earlier novel set in the West that Brooks wrote in much the same vein: The Stone Garden: The Epic Life of Billy the Kid.
For me, the style is an uneasy marriage that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. When it does come together, we glimpse a larger-than-life character who seems equal parts restless dreamer and irresponsible thug — and who’s never satisfied with what he has. When it doesn’t jell, we get a jarring caricature that seems to be an impossible mix of bruising tough guy and heartsick lover.
The story is told in a succession of short, first-person vignettes. While that approach allows for a lively account of the action — and offers points of view that nicely contradict one another — it also means that speakers are tasked with spouting poetic turns of phrase and bad grammar all in the same passage.
Take Pretty Boy’s wife, Ruby, who declares: “That first night Charley and me made love I knew I was already knocked up. I could feel his seed deep in me glowing like a match head.”
Brooks does better when the characters don’t try so hard, as with Fred “The Sheik” Hilderbrand, Pretty Boy’s first partner. Known for his Valentino-like looks, Hilderbrand boasts: “But I ain’t dead yet and don’t ever plan to be. But if I were dead, I’d be the best looking corpse in St. Louis.”
Begging for scraps
Perhaps trying to live up to his nickname, Floyd seems to spend as much time on romance as he does on robbing. The term “romance,” however, seems to dress up the gangster’s feelings a bit much. To put it bluntly, Pretty Boy is crammed with sex — and Floyd’s longstanding love for his wife seems always to boil down to his hunger to copulate.
Maybe it reflects the time period, but the men of Pretty Boy almost always walk away smiling from their sexual encounters, while the women who step out on their men usually wind up feeling dirty and used.
As Rose Ash tells her sister (shot-in-the-head Beulah) after they fool around with a couple of sailors: “What’s the difference between us and some gals who get married to the wrong guys? I mean, in a way, all women are tramps, but at least we’re happy.”
Then there’s this bizarre line, voiced by wife Ruby after Floyd has pinned her to the wall to make love: “I think of his c••k as a key unlocking my soul.”
Readers in search of memorable female characters whose strength doesn’t solely depend on their sex appeal will probably need to look elsewhere.
But dissecting Pretty Boy‘s attitude toward women would miss the essential strength of the book, which lies in the satisfyingly tragic snowballing of Floyd’s mishaps and troubles. The sense of doom comes packaged with a couple of ghostly visits from Floyd’s dead father, Daddy Walter, and what seems to be a healthy dose of self-delusion.
“I don’t know what I ever did to get so many people down on me,” Floyd ruminates while recuperating from an ankle wound he picked up after a shootout that killed a former sheriff. “All I ever wanted was a decent life. I just went about it differently than most people. I just had the guts to do what it took to make my own way instead of standing in a soup line begging for scraps like a damn dog.”
In the end, you don’t have to believe that Pretty Boy Floyd was right — you just have to accept that he believed it. And I do.
Bill Brooks reads from Pretty Boy: The Epic Life of Pretty Boy Floyd at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 6 at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734). A book signing and Q&A session follow. At 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 12, Brooks signs copies of Pretty Boy at Barnes & Noble (89 S. Tunnel Road; 296-9330).