on 21 June 2005
Life in depression-era America was rough, painfully so. And Oklahoma, smack in the middle of the Dust Bowl, was a particularly bad place to be. Poverty, alcoholism, (despite Prohibition), violence, racism, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, were realities of the times. The phrase, "Brother, can you spare a dime," came to epitomize the humiliation and hopelessness of 13 million unemployed Americans. Severe droughts made farming impossible, and thousands of folks were driven off their land by starvation. Many blamed the banks and the wealthy financiers for the country's economic devastation. Crime rates rose drastically with the advent of the Great Depression and Prohibition, and robbing banks became an up-and-coming career path. In 1933, police jurisdictions ended at state lines, the FBI was in its infancy, fast cars and machine guns were easily available - if not for sale, than for stealing. On hand to take full advantage of this get rich fast manner of money making was a motley assortment of criminal masterminds, sociopaths, romantics, and adventurers. Some of the era's most famous Public Enemies - John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers - became iconic figures.
Elmore Leonard's latest novel, "The Hot Kid," is set in 1930's Oklahoma, against a backdrop of moonshine, speakeasies, mine strikes, oil wildcatters, gangsters, gun molls, prostitutes and plenty of bank robberies. The plot focuses on Carl Webster and Jack Belmont, two colorful characters who could make Bonnie and Clyde, in fact, the entire Barrow Gang, seem boring in comparison. The men's backgrounds are similar but their paths could not have diverged more.
Carl Webster, born Carlos, is the grandson of a pureblooded northern Cheyenne woman who married a white man. Their son, Virgil, is Carl's father. His mother, Graciaplena, was Cuban. She is deceased. Virgil, a hero of the Spanish American War, is a pecan farmer, who hit paydirt when oil was discovered on his land. When Carl was just 15, he witnessed an armed robbery and murder in an Okmulgee, Oklahoma drugstore. The kid took it personally because Emmet Long, one of the hold-up men, called him and his father breeds and greasers. He also ate Carl's peach ice cream cone - took it right out of his hand. Later that same year, Carl shot and killed a cattle thief. He warned the man first, "If I have to pull my weapon, I'll shoot to kill." This warning, unintentionally, turns into his tag line. Thus, Carl begins to move toward his inevitable career in law enforcement - what else? He eventually becomes a Federal Marshall, who acquires fame early-on for killing a famous bank robber - the very same gangster who once stole his ice cream cone. Webster is also known for possessing a strong code of honor. A clothes horse too, with an enormous ego, he's one hot kid!
Another Oklahoma boy, and a peer of Carl's, is Jack Belmont. To be blunt, Jack is a bad seed - a real psycho. His dad, Oris, is an oilman who, unlike Carl's father, found oil the old-fashioned way - he worked for it. His discovery of black gold was no accident, but the end result of a long arduous process. And he is a very wealthy man. His only son, however, is a major disappointment, and no amount of hard work can change that. At age ten, Jack tried to drown his sister, but only succeeded in crippling her for life. He also tried his hand at rape, assault, a racially motivated shooting, and other shenanigans, before getting down to real business. He attempted to blackmail his dad, when he could have easily gotten the money by asking. When Oris cracks-down and thinks to make a man of Jack by having him do some "boot camp" labor with some of the "hard cases" working the oil rigs, Jack blows up an oil tank in an explosion that can be seen miles away. Tired of the oil business, he embarks on a bank robbing spree across Oklahoma and Kansas. He does try his hand at kidnapping and forgery first. He thinks he is the hottest kid around! Maybe he means hotheaded!
Webster is soon on Jack's trail. And Jack, longing to reach the pinnacle of his career by becoming Public Enemy Number One, hunts Marshall Webster, whom he has sworn to kill. That would bring in plenty of publicity!
Tony Antonelli, another important personage, is a journalist who writes for True Crime, and documents the exploits of Carl Webster and of Jack Belmont. He doesn't particularly want to be "hot," he just wants to become an award-winning writer. And lovely Louly Brown is definitely hot. She had a "thing" for Pretty Boy Floyd, loves Carl but is drawn to the outlaw life.
Elmore Leonard's quirky characters are some of the most fascinating around. He paints a vivid portrait of Depression-era life in the Dust Bowl, including some of America's most notorious crime figures, turned folk heroes. As always his dialogue is great, as is his dark humor. However, for some reason I was not as drawn into the plot as I had hoped to be. Leonard's narrative is well written, and I am fascinated by the period. I just kept waiting for the main story to begin, and when I discovered I was in the middle of it, I felt kind of let down. I seem to be the only reader, of the hundreds of thousands who bought this book, who feels this way - so chalk it up to my quirkiness. I definitely recommend the novel and am not at all sorry I read it.
This is Elmore Leonard's 40th novel, proving that some talented, creative people are not slowed down by the process of aging.