Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE THANATOS SYNDROME – Walker Percy

When Walker Percy's sixth and final novel came out in 1987 it ran into some serious critical flak. I recall being surprised that anything by an author whose work had completely won my admiration, and, it had seemed to me, was admired universally, would be derided so severely. "Clumsy plot," said Michiko Kakutani of The Thanatos Syndrome. She was just warming up. The New York Times's notorious hatchet woman went on to pan the plot as “a succession of ill-connected and all too obvious scenes.” The novel, she said, lacked Percy’s earlier “fierceness of language and imagination. It stands, in the end, as one of the weakest efforts of one of our most talented and original authors.”
Michiko Kakutani

Kakutani’s chagrin, and that of other, less prominent critics, had no effect on me. I bought Thanatos, read it, and loved it. I’ve just read it again, and now I know why Percy’s usual literati champions dumped on this one. It has a plot! It has danger and suspense! It’s—gasp--a thriller! It also has one of the most gut-busting, thigh-slapping, laugh-out-loud scenes I have ever read. So funny I can easily imagine self-consciously literary snobs who either missed or ignored the reviews spilling their Chablis after blundering aghast into the X-rated Saturday Night Live-caliber climax that wraps up the central story. True, I didn’t need the anti-climatic, extended epilogue scenes, i.e. what happened to the characters afterward yadda yadda. But I was still laughing as I read them, so no harm done.

Though Thanatos sequels Love in the Ruins, Percy’s third novel, it comes sixteen years and two novels after Ruins. It is uncertain how much time has elapsed between the narratives, but Thanatos picks up with protagonist Tom More just released on parole after spending two years in a federal prison for selling drugs illegally to long-distance truck drivers. His parole is a mere formality, loosely monitored by two former psychiatrist colleagues who allow him to return to his practice. Strange behavior by two of his patients and others, including his wife, soon nudge him to team up with his kissing cousin, Lucy, an epidemiologist, to investigate. Their digging uncovers a secret rogue project to test a powerful psychoactive chemical on unsuspecting civilians. Running the unauthorized government-funded project is one of More’s parole-monitoring colleagues, Bob Comeaux, who threatens to revoke More’s parole and send him back to prison unless he backs off. Comeaux tries to persuade More that the chemical, called heavy sodium, has already proven in the “pilot project” it can greatly reduce crime, anxiety, depression, and other social anomalies by “cooling” the superego and boosting the ego by increasing endorphin production.

No drugs,” says Comeaux, “except our own—we’re talking natural highs. Energies are freed up instead of being inhibited!”
He tells More heavy sodium treatments of the L.S.U. football team has turned the players into supermen. The team, he says, “has not had a point scored against them, and get this, old Tom, has not given up a single first down this season.” Also, he adds, L.S.U. engineering students no longer need calculators, because with the sodium treatments, “they’ve got their own built-in calculators.” 
More responds noncommittally as Comeaux unrolls his exhaustive sales pitch hailing heavy sodium as the cure for a better, brighter, healthier society. When he’s finished, he asks More if he has any questions. More then abruptly changes course with a blunt question about the euthanasia practices of a facility Comeaux runs: “Are you still disposing of infants and old people in your Qualitarian Centers?”
Unfair,” Comeaux squawks, and this might be one of the “clumsy” narrative maneuvers Michiko Kakutani had in mind in her downbeat review. Nor can I disagree. More’s question seems to come out of the blue, with no immediate relevance to the heavy sodium project. Yet it fits a fundamental theme in all of Percy’s work, that the spiritual malaise poisoning society cannot be treated as a societal problem, that ideological solutions, such as Nazism and Communism, have proven too dangerous, and that it’s up to individuals to find their own salvation.
The oracle Percy uses to convey this message in Thanatos is Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, a former parish priest who refuses to come down from a fire tower after losing to Comeaux the hospice he’d been running. Father Smith delivers the shocking conclusion Percy has voiced consistently in his work that “tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.”

He explains: “If you are a lover of Mankind in the abstract like Walt Whitman, who wished the best for Mankind, you will probably do no harm and might even write good poetry and give pleasure…
If you are a theorist of Mankind like Rousseau or Skinner, who believes he understands man’s brain and in the solitariness of his study or laboratory writes books on the subject, you are also probably harmless and might even contribute to human knowledge…
But if you put the two together, a lover of Mankind and a theorist of Mankind, what you’ve got now is Robespierre or Stalin or Hitler and the Terror, and millions dead for the good of Mankind.”
Odd for one who professed faith in Catholicism as the only reasonable cure for what ails us, Percy conveniently omits the Inquisition from Father Smith’s warning. Also curious is Percy’s mistrust of emotion, including the shedding of tears. If something cannot meet the test of scientific reasoning—except, of course, for the audacious leap of faith to believe in the Catholic god—then, he seems to say, it is too soft to trust, either discounting or overlooking the significance of the Bible’s shortest sentence: “Jesus wept.”
Tom More’s own outlook has changed much in the years between the two novels. In Ruins, a fairly broad social satire, he starts out leaning toward the social engineering side of things, having invented a device that could diagnose spiritual ills by measuring certain areas of the brain. His eye is on winning a Nobel Prize if he can include a treatment feature, as well. Along comes a mysterious character, obviously representing Satan, who does just that, modifying More’s device. But the “treatment” has the same effect as Bob Comeaux’s heavy sodium, reducing people to their baser instincts, resulting, of course, in hellish catastrophe.
By now More has given up on his Nobel quest. He’s content to treat his patients the old-fashioned, sessions-on-the-couch way. Prison, he says, was good for him:
Prison works wonders for vanity in general and for the secret sardonic derisiveness of doctors in particular. All doctors should spend two years in prison. They’d treat their patients better, as fellow flawed humans. In a word, prison restored my humanity if not my faith. I still don’t know what to make of God, don’t give Him, Her, It a second thought, but I make a good deal of people, give them considerable thought. Not because I’m more virtuous, but because I’m more curious. I listen to them carefully, amazed at the trouble they get into and how few quit. People are braver than one might expect.”


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

LOVE IN THE RUINS – Walker Percy

My love affair with Walker Percy has only just begun, despite my having read—at least once--everything I could find that he wrote and that's been written about him. In the early days of my acquaintance with Percy, several decades ago, I even bought a cheap park bench and sprawled on it langorously from time to time under our pecan trees, trying to feel like he looks in one or more book jacket photos and in many Walker Percy magazine features. I probably should not have disclosed this pathetic fact, and surely wouldn't have were it not my intention to impress upon you how deep and lasting an impact Percy has made on my psyche.

I believe I read his first novel, The Moviegoer, first. If so, I have no recollection of whatever or whoever prompted me to read it. I've since read it twice more, each time finding so much more in the writing it was as if I was reading it again for the first time. Some years went by after that actual first reading before I read another of his novels, this time recommended by a friend. It was either The Last Gentleman or Love in the Ruins. This was years ago. Of all the other Percy works besides Moviegoer, Ruins is the only one I've reread. As with my rereads of Moviegoer, while I found Ruins familiar the second time around, I saw much I'd had no inkling of before.

Percy’s novels are layered with meanings that start at the top level with a male narrator and his immediate crisis. Before long, pursuing a resolution to his crisis, he takes us down the elevator through levels of social malaise and its philosophical/Christian interpretations. Percy, who had joined the Catholic Church, considered himself a “wayfaring” Christian, which was a mix of philosophy and faith. I came to understand this more by reading about him than reading his novels, but with the rereads thus far it’s obvious his wayfaring search for a satisfying life based on belief in the New Testament is very much a part of the fabric of both novels. In Ruins, which has an added satiric layer, there’s even an obvious Devil character. Percy balances absurdity with a commonplace surface feel of moving through perilous terrain with signs everywhere pointing to darkness ahead. The opening scene of Ruins kicks things off and sets the tone:
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?
Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.
Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.
Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.
Undoubtedly something is about to happen.
Or is it that something has stopped happening?
The psychiatrist narrator is a “collateral” descendant of his apparently coincidental namesake, Sir (Saint) Thomas More, the 16th century lord high chancellor of England executed by order of Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. At his execution, More reportedly said, "I die the King's good servant, and God's first." Dr. Tom More, immobilized by Satan incarnate Art Immelman, calls upon his ancestor to banish Immelman as he approaches More’s secretary Ellen to make off her: “’Don’t touch her!’ I cry, but I can’t seem to move. I close my eyes. Sir Thomas More, kinsman, saint, best dearest merriest of Englishmen, pray for us and drive this son of a bitch hence. I open my eyes.


“Art is turning slowly away, wheeling in slow motion, a dazed hurt look through the eyes as if he had been struck across the face.”
More holds Ellen tight as they watch Immelman vanish into swirling smoke.
Immelman’s the cause of the catastrophe More awaits in the beginning of Love in the Ruins. Having appeared mysteriously and affixed himself seemingly to More’s every move, he has subverted More’s invention—a brain-scanning diagnostic tool—by affixing a treatment element he’s using to arouse people’s basest desires. More fears Immelman’s misuse of the tool over the deep salt deposits under the local golf course will release a heavy sodium cloud from which “an unprecedented fallout of noxious particles will settle hereabouts and perhaps in other places as well.
“The effects of the evil particles are psychic rather than physical,” More tells us. “They do not burn the skin and rot the marrow; rather do they inflame and worsen the secret ills of the spirit and rive the very self from itself. If a man is already prone to anger, he’ll go mad with rage. If he lives affrighted, he will quake with terror. If he’s already abstracted from himself, he’ll be sundered from himself and roam the world like Ishmael.”

As to More’s apocalyptic fear, I can tell you that, yes, all hell does break loose at one point in the complicated, politically, religiously, and socially fragmented community where the story is set. Looking back five years later, these days would be referred to as The Trouble. All is not well five years later, though, and we leave off with Dr. More married to one of the “three girls” holed up in the ruined motel, living contentedly and working to enable his diagnostic tool for curing spiritual ills instead of turning people into beasts.
Sort of a happy ending, it would seem, at least for More, but with Percy’s obligatory ominous overtones for the rest of us.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

COMEDIES OF COURTSHIP – Anthony Hope

Had I read Anthony Hope back in the day—in fact as recently as a year ago—I'm obliged to hope I'd have been a tad more careful putting my heart in harm's way. Much wisdom Hope had in ways of the heart. So wise he'd have smiled knowingly at my hope and cited a line from one of his stories, The Virtuous Hypocrites: "the human heart is very wicked."
The story is part of a collection, Comedies of Courtship, which, had I read them several decades ago, should have given me long pause before placing myself in the position where pronouncing those obligatory words "I do" was the only honorable course. Futile pause, Hope would have counseled, with a nod at another line from Virtuous Hypocrites, only delaying the inevitable. The line, "At first sight they had as little reason for being unhappy as it is possible to have in a world half full of sorrow." Oh, yes. And as to the inevitable crash, yet another line offers a pummeled spirit this modicum of relief: "The only comfort was that shallow natures felt these sorrows less."
Fortunately, Hope knows when to relent, giving us lines like this that bust even the somberest of guts: "Oh, Mr. Ellerton, what shall we do? They're still in love with us!" This from the long awaited reveal scene in Virtuous Hypocrites, a clever minuet of a farce in which the lovers of one couple become a couple themselves quite incidentally, with signals delayed—fortuitously, perhaps, as it it turns out--by lost and misread letters.
The viability of Hope's lovers and wooers, and their beloved and wooed depends largely on their physical appearance, social standing, and wealth. The plain and poor need not apply. In only one story—The Lady of the Pool--did two characters come up short in the physical category. A nubile woman was described vaguely as "heavy", and the filthy rich wooer of the eponymous beautiful woman was ridiculed as froglike—short, squat and cursed with bulging eyes. Otherwise the women, if they're described at all, are simply "beautiful" while the men are tall, broad-shouldered, curly haired and blue-eyed. These were Victorian times, when literature danced delicately around anything that might even have hinted at female physicality beyond blushing faces or sparkling eyes. Nonetheless, with Hope's crafty wit and evident understanding of the human beast, we are permitted rich reading between the lines.

When romantic conniving is involved, women are the slyest, and therefore the most apt to succeed. Trix Queenborough, the object of male desire in The Curate of Poltons, is by far the foxiest of them all. She has, Hope writes, “a bowing acquaintance with her conscience.”
In a conversation with the narrator, a friend but not a suitor, Trix asks what's on his mind:
"I was thinking-," said I, "which I would rather be--the man you will marry, or the man you would like."
"How dare you? It's not true,” she exclaims. “Oh, Mr. Wynne, indeed it's not true!"
But of course Mr. Wynne has hit the nail squarely upon its head.
In A Three-Volume Novel, a seemingly modest but otherwise eminently eligible young man, confronted with the usual feminine wiles, is the one who gets to pick, and, in my opinion, picks the right one.
The eponymous young man in The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard, shares his methodical wisdom with the story's ingenue, advising her to pick one of the two hypothetical bachelors she's eyeing for marriage. Going against her own desire, she takes his advice. In my opinion, there really was no choice.

Dulcissima, a strong, righteous woman, defies The Decree of Duke Deodonato, resisting the duke's order that she marry the hideous Fusbius, the first man to propose to her, as per the decree.
"This day in your Duchy women are slaves, and men their masters by your will," she tells Trump...er, I mean the duke.
"It is the order of nature," said Deodonato.
"It is not my pleasure," said the damsel.
Then Deodonato laid his hand on his silver bell, for he was very angry. "Fusbius waits without," said he.
"I will wed him and kill him," cried Dulcissima.
Happy ending? Well...of course!




[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]



Thursday, July 27, 2017

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS & WAS IT MURDER? – James Hilton

TWICE! 
I chose these two mediocre novels by James Hilton in the warm glow of the first two of his novels I read—Lost Horizon and Random Harvest. Had it been Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Was it Murder? first, and were Lost Horizon not so famous, I likely would as yet be unread of anything by James Hilton. I'm glad it worked out this way, although I do not have much enthusiasm for writing about the two lesser books. I find no pleasure in panning books I should have exercised more self-discipline than to read at all. In fact it embarrasses me. So I will take a tip from British custom and try muddling on through with a stiff upper lip, whatever the hell that is.

I could say the very narrow nostriled pip pip Britishness of the characters irritated me into a bad mood, which certainly is part of the problem--I'll give some examples, especially from Murder. But the more I've thought about it the more I've come to believe it was story that made the difference.
In Chips, which Hilton wrote in a week and is only 25 pages, we follow the mediocre career of a teacher named Chipping in a mediocre private school (which the Brits call “public”). Chipping, called “Chips” by everyone, is an introverted fellow whose plodding determination and a bit of good luck eventually endear him as a personal institution. In overdoing Chips's habit of breaking up his speech with hmphs, Hilton succeeded in annoying me to the point I would cringe whenever poor Chips started talking. I might even have shouted at least once, “OKAY, WE GET IT, HMPH!!Chips nonetheless caught the sentimental eye of Hollywood, which turned out several successful adaptations, one of them a musical with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark.

Two years earlier one of Hilton's first novels—and his only detective novel--then titled Murder at School, was published under a pseudonym. The title was later changed to Was it Murder?, and even later, back and forth between the two titles. I learned all of this from an excellent review posted five years ago by my friend Sergio on his blog Tipping My Fedora. Safe to say that had I seen his review before reading Was it Murder?, I would have passed on the novel. Sergio gave it only 2.5 tips of his hat out of a possible 5, albeit he's tough to please—I cannot recall any of his reviews I've seen receiving 5 tips.
As I've frequently confessed, my tendency to identify with protagonists compromises my critical faculties, meaning I probably shouldn't be reviewing any fiction whatsoever. And I don't, really. I write about what I like or don't like, based solely on the effect a novel or story has on me. I have a vague familiarity with such terms as “Golden Age” and “modern” and “post modern” and perhaps “post post modern,” if such exists, but those distinctions are out of my purview. Were I a British public school “old boy”, though, such terminology would bloody well be de rigueur, don'tcha know.
As to my identifying with the main characters, Chips made me queasy, his growing old in passive mediocrity. I have enough stubborn Norwegian DNA in me to resist so meek a surrender. With Colin Revell, the amateur detective in Murder, I squirmed with embarrassment. This, from the get-go:
A mystery always attracted him. Anything attracted him, in fact, that brought with it the possibility of being drawn into some new vortex of interest. His soul yearned with Byronic intensity for something to happen to it. He was almost twenty-eight, and so far he seemed to have done nothing in life except win the Newdigate, give a terrifying study of the Jew in the O.U.D.S. production of The Merchant of Venice, publish a novel (of course he had done that), and rake in an unexpected tenner for inventing the last line of a limerick about somebody’s chewing-gum.
Of course, he had published a novel...grrrr... I'd hoped, when I read that paragraph, that Murder might turn out to be satiric, and that the fop “detective” would entertain me in the manner of, say, Peter Sellers in his Pink Panther Inspector Clouseau disguise. Alas, 'twas not to be, despite the occasional glimmer of what may have been Hilton's random attempts at drollery. Apparently wit was absent from among the tools in his skill set—unless, of course, his humor was so precisely British it sailed untouched over my artless American head. Then there's this, which I include especially as a caveat for my two faithful female readers: “A man might have done it, if ever a man had had her type of genius to begin with. But her nerve was only a woman’s.” That's a Scotland Yard detective speaking, Yvette and Tracy, and he's no Fat Ollie Weeks parody of Archie Bunker, at least not in this brief role. It's a straight, dispassionate line, provoking nary an arched eyebrow from Revell or the conversation's other Scotland Yard detective. Good ol' boys all three, plus their literary creator.
The villain James Hilton
Then again, Murder was written in 1931, when females were deemed too delicate to open screw-top jars when a handy male was present.
As we have arrived at the place where I'm to give you some idea of the plot, I'm going to skimp, leaving you to read Sergio's account, right here. I shall say mostly what I didn't like about it: Too simple, for me, and unnecessarily complicated in Revell's unlikable mind. He spends may too much time agonizing over theories and doing precious little detecting. Scotland Yard's entry to the case adds some ballast, but as we're viewing things from Revell's arrogantly callow, i.e. aggressively gullible, perspective, the real cops seem more adjunctive than in charge. There are too few suspects. Even I, who's easily stumped by mysteries even the least Sherlockian of readers can solve, had this one figured out while Revell's theories were still still roiling about in his Walter Mitty imagination. Had he been Walter Mitty I might now be stifling laughter whilst gushing my enthusiasm on the page.
If you're wondering how a fop like Revell got into a murder investigation, I can give you a clue: The school's headmaster invited him to look into the strange death of a student. His name had come up as an alumnus of the boy's school with a reputation at Oxford for solving mysteries. The only mystery Revell mentions involved recovering a stolen document from the college library. As to what else our boy detective might have been up to during his school days, I leave you with this little ditty he's just finished writing, which kicks off this pretentious, muddled excuse for a novel:

Pilate might well have added: “What is youth?”—
And so the modern father too may wonder,
Faintly remembering his own, forsooth,
But feeling it would be an awful blunder
To tell his sons a tenth part of the truth
About the sex-temptations he came under.
Therefore, in England now, on every hand,
This proper study of mankind is banned.

My gratitude to you for having read this far. Please accept my sincere and heartfelt apology.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Thursday, July 20, 2017

WHERE THE MONEY WAS -- Willie Sutton with Edward Linn

"Willie's got friends." My dad was reading to us from the Milwaukee Journal about the killing of Arnold Schuster, the man who'd recognized a notorious fugitive bank robber on a New York City subway, followed him to a garage in Brooklyn, and flagged down a police car. The flurry of publicity following the arrest of Willie "The Actor" Sutton included media interviews with Schuster, who'd come forward to claim what he believed would be a sizeable reward. That's when the threatening calls and letters started coming to his parents' home, where the 24-year-old Coast Guard veteran lived. The one my dad read to us stuck in my head like a permanent earworm. This was early March, 1952, and I was ten.
Arnold Schuster (right)
Willie Sutton and John Dillinger were the two famous criminals who invaded and stuck in my imagination growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Dillinger and a girlfriend reputedly had spent a night in the small hotel my dad eventually bought for his law practice. What stayed with me about Dillinger was that and the romantic drama of his death coming out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. With Sutton it was "Willie's got friends." And the irony is that before Schuster's murder Sutton and his attorneys thought he had a good chance of winning an acquittal in the robbery trial he was facing. Popular opinion celebrated this lone robber, who, although he used guns as props, never shot or hurt anyone. Everything changed after the murder, as Sutton predicted it would when he learned Schuster'd been killed. "Oh my God," he said after the prison warden gave him the news. "This sinks me."
It did as he predicted, the taint by association sunk him good, as public goodwill and the trial jury turned against him. No one was ever convicted in Schuster's killing, which haunted Sutton the rest of his life. So he claims in Where the Money Was, the memoir he co-wrote with celebrity ghostwriter Edward Linn. Despite the sinking at that time, though, Sutton would rise and sink and rise and sink over and over until he died a free man at age seventy-nine. By then his Robin Hood popularity had returned despite his insistence he'd never thought of himself in that role.
"Not in my wildest dreams," he says in the book, "had I ever looked upon bank robbery as a revolutionary act, and busting out of jail had no social significance to me whatsoever. Hell, I was a professional thief. I wasn’t trying to make the world better for anybody except myself." That's likely truthful, as he saw himself, but in reading his story it's not hard to understand how others came to see the more romantic version. The others inluded Pete Hamill, New York Post columnist, who rallied support for a pardon as time was running out for one of Sutton's legs, which needed surgery or amputation to save his life. Hamill's open letter to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller came out two days before Christmas 1969.
"One by one, he hit every significant point: my age, my health, the thirty-five years I had already spent in prison, and the undisputed fact that I had never hurt anyone," Sutton said. "But more than that, he was able to hit exactly the right tone":

“We know what Willie did, but then he never made any secret of it. . . . When asked for an occupation, he once told a judge: ‘It was of an illegal nature. It was bank robbing.’ There were times when he was less than cooperative with authorities, but this was at least based upon principle. . . .
“In his extracurricular activities he was always a gentleman, a suave dresser, an expert on psychology, Irish history, and chess, and a gallant with women. He had an aversion to steam table food to be sure and three times broke out of jail. . . .”
"I don’t know whether Katherine’s letter or the Hamill column had any effect," he wrote, referring to a stinging appeal one of his attorneys, Katherine Spyros Bitses, also sent to Rockefeller and the newspapers, "But I don’t know that they didn’t, either. All I do know is that a few hours later they practically threw me out of the place.”
I took twenty-five pages of notes as I read Where the Money Was, and this could easily become the longest book report I've ever written. I'll try to keep it under control—my enthusiasm, that is. To avoid appearing too gullible. And yet, even if only half of what Sutton says in the book is true, it's still an account of one of the most amazing human beings I know of. About halfway through I started thinking, this guy had the soul of Mosby! For years I've been in awe of the guts, pluck, prowess, and pure joie de vivre of the Confederacy's Gray Ghost, Col. John Singleton Mosby, who, among his many astonishing feats, ran off a squadron of Pennsylvania cavalry singlehandedly one afternoon by pretending he had his own squadron just below the crest of the hill he'd reached. He swung his saber and charged down the hill, Rebel yelling, and the Yankees turned tail and fled.
Here's Sutton, dressed as a cop, on his way to rob a bank. He's crossing the street when a real police captain chews him out for...well, let's let Willie tell it:
While I was crossing a busy intersection in Philadelphia in my uniform...I was hailed down by a police cruiser. A captain got out and bawled the hell out of me for having a button loose on my collar. I felt just awful about it—yes, sir; you’re right, sir; an absolute disgrace, sir—not because a police officer had stopped me right across from the bank I was about to rob but because I was being censured by a superior. I was a very conscientious cop right up to the time I stopped being a cop and started being a thief...
On two separate occasions, motorists asked me if it would be all right to leave their car in a no-parking zone for a couple of minutes—they were just going to run in and pick something up. I lectured them severely. How could they ask a policeman for permission to violate a city ordinance? 'Now if you happened to ride around the block,' I told them, 'I might not be here when you got back.'”
Willie had a sense of humor that could have made him a star had he not preferred the challenge of robbing banks. Here's something that would have brought the house down had he delivered it in a stand-up routine at Second City:
A trio of painters once arrived unexpectedly while I was taking a bank in Pennsylvania, and I simply told them to spread out their drop-cloths and go to work. 'The pay you guys get, the bank can’t afford to have you hanging around doing nothing. They’re insured against bank robbers but nobody would insure them against you robbers.' All during the robbery I was able to keep up a line of chatter about how I could have retired by now if we bank robbers had as strong a union as they did. Everybody had a good time, and by the time we walked out the door with the money they had one of the walls completely painted.”
The guy's so good I hardly have to write anything myself, just sort of stitch together some of his better stuff—which really isn't so easy, because so much of his stuff is so good. Even the unfunny part about the beating he took that nearly killed him. His description is so long I can only put part of it here, but it's enough to give you an idea of the toughness of this funny, charming, brilliant robber:
So they took me down two flights of stairs to the target room in the subbasement. A long narrow room, with three or four bull’s-eyes at the far end, and a long wooden table just inside the door. Soundproof. They could kill you and nobody would hear you hollering. After I had been ordered to strip, my hands were cuffed behind my back and I was picked up and thrown on top of the table with my stomach sticking up. There were six detectives there under the command of McPhee. One of them held me around the neck, a couple of them held my shoulders, and two others held my feet. McPhee and the other detective stood on opposite sides of the table, and with long rubber hoses they started to beat me methodically from my private parts all the way up to my neck. Then they turned me over and beat another tattoo on my back. When they were finished, my skin was completely black. I was one solid contusion, front and back. A slab of quivering pain.
And then they turned me over and started all over again. Unbearable! Every time they laid the hose on me, it felt like a red-hot sword stabbing into me. “Why don’t you kill me, you bastards!” I screamed. “You’ll never get me to confess.” And I knew that they wouldn’t. And the more they beat me the surer I became. They beat away at me for probably half an hour, and then I pretended to lapse into unconsciousness, which is almost impossible because the body stiffens in anticipation of every blow. But I suppose the body also must become desensitized when it reaches a certain level of pain, and the time came when I was able to let my mouth sag open and just lay there, inert, every time the hose came down on me…
It's not over yet. Nowhere near over. It goes on and on…
Fortunately, for you and me, I'm running out of space here. It was bad enough to read about it the first time. Two good things came of it, though—he survived without giving up any names, and from then on cops didn't bother beating him, because they knew it wouldn't work.
Okay, we're winding down here. I'll add that once Willie started getting caught and sent to prisons his focus shifted from breaking into places to breaking out. He masterminded escapes from three prisons, one of which had never been escaped from before. And when he got too old for that activity he started practicing law behind bars, helping other inmates get out with appeals or new trials. And he became a songwriter. We'll finish here with one he wrote making fun of the U.S. Supreme Court's practice of ignoring the flood of prisoners' writs of habeas corpus by simply affirming the appealed order without writing an opinion. Here's Willie's song:
I got the Affirm the Order
No Opinion blues
The Appellate courts won’t tell me why I lose
I wrote a brief like Darrow
And I cited Blackstone’s law
But the Judges thought that Blackstone
Was a General in some war
I got the Affirm the Order
No Opinion blues
The phrases that they use have me confused
I’m going to write the Court Supreme
And I’ll ask them what they mean
By their Affirm the Order
No Opinion ruse.

—WORDS AND MUSIC BY
W. F. SUTTON
(CIRCA 1966)

The song went on and on, the verses were endless,” Willie writes. “But then so were the writs that were being sung about.”
I guess by now you can see why Willie had friends. I don't know about friendship, but, although I'm a tad late, I am one unabashed, unashamed admirer.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]