Saturday, August 14, 2010

On the Lam

As of 2:38 p.m., Saturday, August 14, 2010, John McCluskey and Casslyn Welch were still running loose, leaving a cooling trail of false sightings and lawmen kicking the dirt in frustration.  At this moment, they are the most-wanted man and woman in the U.S. and, according to the most recent reports, they could be hiding out in western Montana.  Who knows, maybe I'll bump into them down at the Town Pump gas station, buying a six-pack and a carton of Marlboros.

McCluskey and Welch are a pair of fugitives cut from the cloth of pulp fiction.  Until July 30, he'd been serving a 15-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder and armed robbery; she had been on the other side of the Arizona State Prison's barbed wire, impatiently waiting for him to catch the wire-cutters she tossed over the fence.  He was John Garfield, she was Barbara Stanwyck, and they were making a break for it, baby.

(The fact that Welch is McCluskey's fiancee and cousin only adds an extra-delicious seamy layer to the whole story.)

Once McCluskey snipped his way out of prison, he and fellow convicts Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick, along with Welch, started a new life of crime on the run. Renwick was arrested the next day in Colorado, after a shootout with police.  Province and McCluskey are believed to have killed a married couple whose charred bodies were found in a camper in New Mexico.  Province was later nabbed in Meeteeste, Wyoming, surrendering without incident shortly after he attended a church service there.

Which leaves the lovers on the run.  The U.S. marshal for Arizona said McCluskey and Welch "have nothing to lose" and may not surrender without a battle. "It changes by the minute, but we are convinced that they are not going to go down lightly," David Gonzales told CNN.

A lot has been made of the fact that they're the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde--and that's not too far off the mark.  "McCluskey and Welch" may not roll off the tongue like names of the Depression-era bandits, but their elusive getaways and seemingly callous crime spree have all the marks of Mr. Barlow and Ms. Parker.

One of the best books written about Bonnie and Clyde is Jeff Guinn's Go Down Together, which I reviewed last year for The Barnes and Noble Review, calling it a "riveting dissection of the life and times of the romantic robbers."
Though Bonnie and Clyde were never criminal masterminds on the order of John Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd -- Guinn writes that "their two-year crime spree was as much a reign of error as terror" -- to the law-abiding public downtrodden by the Depression, they were "the epitome of scandalous glamour."  The short, scrawny Clyde loved fast cars and was devoted to his family; Bonnie, "a borderline alcoholic," wrote poetry and yearned for an exciting catalyst to pull her out of the slums of West Dallas, Texas.  Guinn's inside look at their "brief era of roaming banditry" is at times sympathetic to the doomed pair -- neither of whom would live to see their 25 birthday.  "Their fatalism was tempered by their youth," he writes.  Subtitled The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, the book relies heavily on a pair of unpublished memoirs from Clyde's mother and sister.  Impeccably researched and drawing on interviews with surviving family members and those who came in contact with Bonnie and Clyde, Go Down Together chips through the layers of legend and outright fabrications (both from the prevaricating Clyde and self-aggrandizing lawmen) to get as close to the truth as anyone can.  The result is a book pulsing with a narrative rhythm that has all the shock and excitement of a tommy gun's rat-a-tat-tat.
As Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway proved, fugitives make some of the most compelling characters in fiction and film.  The act of running itself provides a simple plot arc, but also entails very complex emotional wiring for the characters.  In his book On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover's America, William Beverly writes, "The hunt for the fugitive provides an uncommonly satisfying narrative structure among news items.  Manhunts erupt from a distinct beginning, the commission of a crime or identification of a suspect; they match recognizable adversaries in deadly conflict; they barrel toward a climax, shootout or arrest, or toward an eerie silence."

One of the best "on the lam" novels I've read is Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us.  I read the 1937 novel while I was in Iraq; Anderson's no-nonsense style kept me glued to the page despite the sectarian violence and gunbattles erupting in the streets less than half-a-mile from my hooch.  The novel was so good, two of our greatest American directors have put it before the camera: Nicholas Ray in 1949 (retitled as They Live by Night) and Robert Altman in 1974.  As good as those movies are, however, neither can compare to Anderson's pulp fiction which is dunked in hardboiled noir.  As the story opens, three convicts are on the run: Elmo "Chicamaw" Mobley, T.W. "T-Dub" Masefeld and Bowie Bowers.  Before long, a teenage girl, Keechie, joins the gang and ill-fated romance blooms between Bowie and her.

Anderson tightens the screws all through the narrative; you know the inevitable conclusion--which may or may not be the blood-bullet ballet of Bonnie and Clyde (and, possibly, McCluskey and Welch)--but you're still gripped by the succinct, realistic style.  Here, for instance, is how Anderson describes the fugitives' first hours on the lam:
The highway still stretched emptily.  They're finding out things back there now in the Warden's Office, Bowie thought.  The Colonel's bowels are gettin' in an uproar now.  Get out the stripes for that bunch of no-goods, he is saying.  That's what you get for treatin' them like white men.  No more baseball and passes to go fishing for that Bowie Bowers and Elmo Mobley.  That T.W. Masefeld is not going to work in this prison commissary any more.  Get out the dogs and the shotguns and the .30-30's and run them sons of bitches down...
Another great stylist of the noir era, Jim Thompson, wrote a much-lauded "lam novel" called (rather obviously) The Getaway.  In that 1959 hardboiled classic, he wrote about the very things McCluskey and Welch must be feeling while they're running like rabbits somewhere here in western Montana:
Flight is many things.  Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky.  Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crablike movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward.
It is sleeping in fields and river bottoms.  It is bellying for miles along an irrigation ditch.  It is back roads, spur railroad lines, the tailgate of a wildcat truck, a stolen car and a dead couple in lovers' lane.  It is food pilfered from freight cars, garments taken from clotheslines; robbery and murder, sweat and blood.  The complex made simple by the alchemy of necessity.
Who knows what, if anything, McCluskey and Welch are reading while they zigzag across the U.S.  But if they're anywhere near a used bookstore, they might want to stop in and pick up Thieves Like Us or The Getaway.  (On behalf of indie booksellers everywhere, I ask that they please pay for their purchase.)  I think they'll find those books are the roadmaps for a successful elusive chase.

At least until they get to the end, and go down together.

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