Raising Hell And Getting Paid For It

Most of the time, when you think of gangsters, molls, high rollers and flappers, you think of Chicago or New York. Books and movies have concentrated on those midwestern and eastern cities as bastions of criminality,
hoods, bootleggers and bad guys. Luckily, for lovers of fiction grounded in the 1920s and 30s, some novelists have ventured into the less charted waters of New Orleans, Galveston, even Midland and Odessa. One author who brings that time and those places back to life with the force of a runaway freight train is James Carlos Blake. Texas Monthly has called him “the hottest Texas writer you’ve never heard of.” Some have referred to him as “the next Cormac McCarthy.” He might just be a little, or a lot, of both.

While Blake has ventured into a number of different timeframes and locales in his novels, the one that’s the subject of this particular post is his depression era ode to small time crooks, A World of Thieves. Set in the southeast and southwest of that memorable time in the nation’s history, it tells the story of a trio of outlaws for whom knocking over filling stations, sticking up banks, and executing the old badger game is not just a living, its a way of life. Yes, the narrator of the story confesses, there are simply some folks who feel a lot more alive when stealing their money from banks, grocery stores, illegal poker games and cathouses, than from stealing it while working for insurance companies, law firms, or the government. You see the essence of Blake’s novel is that “everybody’s a thief.” Some just do their thieving within the confines of the law, others outside of it.

A World of Thieves begins with a bank heist gone bad. The wheelman, Sonny, a nineteen year old working with his two uncles, Russell and Buck, winds up killing a man and getting sent to prison. The prison isn’t the big house you see in all those James Cagney movies, it’s a chain gang in the middle of the Louisiana swamps. You’re not likely to find a more compelling reason for wanting to avoid a similar fate, than reading Blake’s tale of Sonny’s time spent wearing leg irons, being whipped, spending time in the sweatbox, and digging ditches in muck up to his privates. Odd then, you might think, when Sunny finally manages to escape, that the thing he wants to do most, is reconnect with those uncles and get back in the outlaw life. But, as Blake makes clear, neither Sonny (who’s actually quite literate and really smart) or his uncles (who definitely aren’t) have much to say about it. Thieving is simply in their nature, and one’s character (or the lack of it) is a harbinger of one’s fate.

We follow these lads, and the women that accompany them, from Louisiana into Texas, where they pick up traveling money in the gambling city of Galveston and head out for the wide open spaces and well heeled oil towns of West Texas. There, they set up a safe house in one small hamlet, and proceed to do crimes in a number of the surrounding boom towns. Such is the talent of the author, that you can’t fail to like these joke-telling, booze-swilling, women-carousing miscreants. None of them long for the good life. They believe they’re living it.

But James Carlos Blake is nothing if not a realist. And soon the reader learns that the father of the man who was killed in the initial bank job is on their trail. He is one bad dude. And in the tradition of every murderous tale from Caine and Able to Bonnie and Clyde, there’s going to be hell to pay.

If you like great fiction that rips, snorts, jolts you with violence, and foregoes the sentiment, then jump on the running board of Sonny’s Model A Ford and beat a hasty getaway to A World Of Thieves. It’s a fun-packed way to lose yourself between the pages of America’s shady past. The Fiction Fortune Hunter did. And he’s the better for it.

And if you’re not quite sure about the morality of the whole thing…well just think of it as the author did in the quote he used (from Cormac McCarthy’s Child Of God) to open his book. “All the trouble I ever was in was caused by getting caught.”

103 Responses to “Raising Hell And Getting Paid For It”

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