Honor Among Thieves
James Carlos Blake continues in his ambitious, provocative vein with 'A world of Thieves'
James Carlos Blake puts the roar back into the Roaring Twenties with A World of Thieves (Morrow, $25.95), his new novel about a Prohibition-era hold-up gang's criminal exploits as they migrate from New Orleans to the post-Spindletop boom towns of West Texas, with detours to a couple of abbreviated jail stints (paroled-by-shotgun) in between. Teenage protagonist Sonny LaSalle, despite being an exceptional student and champion boxer, finally joined his twin uncles, Buck and Russell, in the criminal life after both his parents suddenly died, but he'd always known that crime was in his blood. Even though there's always a glimmer of hope that he might possibly leave this life behind and avoid disaster, once he gets behind the wheel of a getaway car, there's no turning back.
During the gang's hurried egress from a poker game scam in San Antonio, they rescue a young woman named Belle from a particularly nasty gang of pornographers. Belle is taken under the wing of Charlie, Russell's girlfriend, and Sonny falls in love with Belle. As the gang heads west, tension mounts as Charlie becomes increasingly disenchanted with being a dangerous criminal's moll, and Blake plants vague hints in the reader's mind as to whether Belle is as innocent as she purports to be. Eventually, Belle becomes Sonny's stick-up partner, diving into the game head-first with almost enough lubricious lust to make James Cain and Jim Thompson blush. Belle and Charlie nearly steal the show as they provide the requisite stress on the blood ties of Sonny and his uncles, and keep the reader guessing. The biggest goose bumps, however, pop up during the short, chilling passages tracing the progress of a wraithlike killer cop named John Bones as he closes in on Sonny's trail.
Barking Tommy guns, bathtub gin, flappers, and Model T's careening down dusty roads always bring comparisons to America's favorite stick-up gang, Bonnie and Clyde. Having that celluloid mental repository of images certainly helps visualize this deliciously visual story, despite several significant differences (e.g., unlike Bonnie and Clyde, this gang has sworn off robbing banks).
Beloved by critics, Blake has been favorably compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, Charles Willeford, and Cormac McCarthy.
Texas Monthly, which is not known for its subtlety with headlines and captions, ran a Blake profile in 1999, bellowing, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next Cormac McCarthy! above the headline. The comparison becomes inevitable when one reads the superb In the Rogue Blood, whose Mexican war setting and story of scalp hunters and frontier adventurers runs parallel to McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Blake also conspicuously used similar McCarthyesque Biblical cadences for his book, while topping the latter novel's body count, and in the opinion of some (myself included), told a much more readable tale.
With his six novels, one book of short fiction, plus a poetically moving memoir, Blake has built a collection of ambitious, provocative, literate fiction that mines some of the darkest moments of American history. Blake seems to revel in biting off big chunks of American history, and, letting the blood dribble between his teeth, out come the wanderlust and primal energy that fuels the feuds, wars, revolutions, and other growth pangs of our fair nation.
Although beautifully written -- sometimes deceptively so -- A World of Thieves sports a leaner, swifter style than most of Blake's previous work.
Perhaps, as bookstore owners shelve a few copies of this novel over in the crime section, devotees of that genre will intelligently embrace Blake and find their way to his titles in the literary section. Conversely, legions of literature snobs might just get down off their high horses, saddle up with one of Blake's fast ponies, and find out what they've been missing.
Currently, Blake is on a driving book tour in support of the new novel, while scanning the pages of U.S. history for a new literary assault. Although mum about his probable next subject (after next year's Under the Skin, which is already completed), he enjoys talking about his favorite themes: loyalty, blood ties, the borderlands/frontier experience, and of course, writing.
Austin Chronicle: You do a great job of sparingly revealing Belle's character, and yet, I still can't tell whether she's as innocent as she says she is, or she's conning the gang from the beginning.
James Carlos Blake: Belle is the real mystery of A World of Thieves. The story tends to support Sonny's view of Belle, but there's just enough of the unanswered about her that the reader can't be absolutely sure. That slight doubt delights me because it's true to life. Even in fiction, where we get to know characters better than we can ever know anybody in "real" life, I think there should be at least a small hint of doubt about who they truly are.
AC: You were 47 when your first novel came out. Seven years later, seven books, is an impressive record. Do you ever worry about running out of enough personal experience to draw from in your writing?
JCB: The advantage of a late start as a writer is that -- depending, of course, on your basic character -- you've done more and been more places and seen more things than if you started writing at a young age and spent your prime years sitting at a desk. That's why guys like Stephen Crane, for instance, who started young, were always taking breaks from writing and going out to seek adventure. But if I live another 30 years, it won't be long enough to write all the things I'd like to. That's the disadvantage of a late start.
AC: I've often said that musicians have a lot in common with criminals, in that they're guys who just can't go that day job route, and sometimes you'll find them doing a hundred bucks worth of work playing a gig for which they're paid ten bucks, which makes them feel like rock stars. This is another echo of the philosophy of your thieves, and it really struck a chord, so to speak.
JCB: "Won money is sweeter than earned money" is a longtime gambling adage. For Buck and his ilk, however, stolen money is even sweeter yet because it calls for more than luck and talent. It requires daring. It's not hard to imagine why, of all forms of crime, armed robbery is probably the most thrilling, or to understand why it's so consistently entertaining to readers and moviegoers. All of which has me thinking further about the connection between crime and art. There are people for whom The Ordinary is nothing less than a kind of living death. Every serious artist -- musician, painter, writer -- is in rebellion against The Ordinary. So is every serious criminal, especially armed robbers. Maybe Karl Wallenda said it all for every artist, from high wire walkers to writers, as well as for armed robbers, when he said that life is on the wire and all the rest is waiting.
AC:It's always seemed strange to me that the mystery fiction crowd hasn't latched onto you in a huge way. I'm glad to see that your current tour is taking you to a lot of mystery stores.
JCB: All my novels have dealt with "criminal" characters -- including Pancho Villa and Bill Anderson, both known outlaws before becoming legendary men of war. But even though I write about criminals and violence, I haven't been labeled a "crime" writer, maybe because the genre generally restricts itself to our contemporary world, and none of my books prior to A World of Thieves is set more recently than the early 20th century. Some call me a "historical" novelist, but what does that tell anybody except that most of my books are set at some time other than right now? A World of Thieves is set in 1929 -- maybe that's why it's being treated as a crime novel rather than a historical one.
AC:All your novels deal with the unshakeable bond of blood. But your characters always seem doomed by the larger forces at work in their lives anyway.
JCB: Like all my books, this novel deals chiefly with conflicts of loyalty and self-discovery. Loyalty is a matter of choice -- and so, what we choose to be loyal to -- what and who we are willing to risk our ass for -- is what, finally, defines us as truly as we can be defined. There's an old saying in Mexico: Tell me how you died and I will tell you who you were. It's a typically macabre Mexican way of restating Heraclitus' sage old saw that character is fate, and character, as I see it, almost always comes down to loyalties.
In fiction, conflicts of loyalty are most dramatically and spectacularly effected in tales of crime, where loyalty and disloyalty are often matters of life and death.