Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: Annals of Research

Despite the shroud of illness that has weighed me down in recent months, I haven’t been entirely mummified in blankets upon my bed.

For example, the day before Elizabeth and I took a recuperative holiday in September, I limped to the end of the first draft of my next novel, Butchertown.

More I won’t say—give me a week or two—but I‘ll tell you about some of the background reading. I’ve been fairly lucky here, in that the last three books I’ve read have also been good ones, worth finishing, worth both my times and yours.


First and best was The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, by David Laskin (Harper Perennial), a beautifully written story, both intimate and epic, of twelve European immigrants who, after arriving on U. S. shores around the turn of the 20th century, found themselves signing up and shipping back to Europe to fight in World War I, with one of them fighting his own countrymen.

Like the thousands of immigrant soldiers who served—many of whom knew not a jot of English--the dozen Laskin focuses on came from all over Europe: an Irishman and Norwegian; Jews from the ghettoized world of Russia’s Pale of Settlement, poverty-stricken Italians, and an Austro-Hungarian.

Many immigrants came to escape conscription in their countries’ armies. All came to America in search of a better life as people have for half a millennium. Whatever their reasons, the last thing these men expected was to soldier up and ship back home to fight a war.

None of them resisted the draft call-up in 1917. In fact, draft resistance was rare, an alien notion to our resistant age (though Laskin does relate a couple of grim cases involving the fatal persecution of pacifist German immigrants). This becomes especially poignant in the light of how especially vile and pointless World War I was.

All these men served bravely, under the most ghastly circumstances imaginable and, except for a couple of Medals of Honor, little thanks. Even so, many of those who made it back alive felt a pride in their service to their country they carried with them for the rest of their lives.

This a beautifully written book, richly and movingly detailed. If your curiosity ever leads you back to those days, this is one to read.


You Can’t Win by Jack Black (not the comedian) is the best true crime book I’ve read in years and certainly the most thrilling true crime autobiography.

Jack Black was born in 1871 in British Columbia and grew up in Missouri. As a teenager he took easily to a 30-year career as a professional criminal, burgling and stealing his across the fading Old West. Fifteen of these years he spent behind bars in the U.S. and Canada. It wasn’t until he hit bottom as an opium fiend (and kingpin) facing another 25 years that he met wealthy San Francisco newspaper publisher and editor Fremont Older in the 1910s and broke his downward spiral.

You Can’t Win is an amazing read, a mostly candid, compelling, and hair-raising story of life on the lam and underground, packed with vibrant sympathetic characters, roller-coaster adventures, and hair-raising exploits.

Woven all through it, though, is a grimy despondency and fatalism, tarred with many episodes of brutality, by both crooks and cops. Black illustrates with exacting detail how it takes as much brains and skill to be a “successful” criminal as required in most other professions (including burglaries that take all night, as the thief sits waiting for his victim to turn over in his sleep.)

As livings go, it’s not much of one; by Black’s account, only one in five burglaries could be counted as “successful”; the rest of the time is spent in fear—of getting caught or starving—or a relentless boredom and aimlessness that ends in alcoholism and drug addiction).

Surprising too is the camaraderie among underworld denizens in those days, with comparatively little of the self-destructive ultra-Darwinian mentality that seemed to arise with the enormous wealth and power spurred by Prohibition and the War Against Drugs. As Brian Burroughs also demonstrated in his classic Public Enemies, Black experienced a tentative “honor among thieves” that, while not ironclad, and contingent on circumstances, was essential to the survival of both body and soul. Crooks were never honest to us law-abiders, of course, but they had to be square with each other if they hoped to see another day. Their lives were short and brutish enough as it was.

While it may be seen as an “anti-crime” book, You Can’t Win is also an “anti-punishment” book. Once out of prison and cleaned up, Black, with Older’s help, became a noted public figure, speaking out not only on crime prevention but also as a full-throated advocate of prison reform. As has been noted time and again, prison never made an honest man out of anyone. It wasn’t prison that reformed Black, but the realization achieved with the help of others, that there were choices beyond the bad ones he made.

Even if you’re not interested in the social issues Black discusses here, you’ll have a ripping time following along on his exploits, more edge-of-your-chair thrills than you’ll find with most crime thrillers. While Black obviously glosses over his later career (when he turned toward violence and drug-dealing), his portrayal of life underground is exact, vivid, unsentimental, and memorable.


Real movie and theatre buffs know all about Ben Hecht. When I was trying to be screenwriter, he was one of my heroes—maybe my only hero. Hecht was—and remains—the greatest screenwriter from the Hollywood dream factory. He wrote and co-wrote, (credited and uncredited) over seventy movies during Hollywood’s Golden Years, from the 1920s and the 1960s.

The list is fabulous—Scarface (1932; the good one); The Front Page, written with Charles MacArthur, play and screenplay); Nothing Sacred, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind (uncredited); Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Notorious; Gunga Din.

So many scripts for so many good and great pictures, it’s hard to see how there’s any room nowadays for a writer like him anywhere but in the far realms of pay cable (Hecht would have been a natural for series like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. But shows like those don’t come along often.)

As told in William MacAdams’s readable if uninspired biography, Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend, Hecht was also one of the most celebrated, and most antic, writers and wits of his time. Born in New York City in 1894, he moved first to Wisconsin, then as a young man, to Chicago where he became a successful newspaperman, columnist and leader of what was known as Chicago Literary Renaissance, a noted novelist and poet, whose books were sometimes banned for obscenity.

Noted is all he came to be in this context, because little of Hecht’s work from that era is remembered, except for a collection of his columns, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. Some years ago, I read his debut novel Erik Dorn, a novel in the Modernist style that was just birthing at that time—inward turning, psychological, philosophical, sometimes witty, but dramatically static and barely memorable.

It wasn’t until 1926, when Hecht, his romance with being a starving artist tarnishing and wondering if he would become any more than a “notorious, noted writer,” received a telegram from fellow scribe Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) urging him to come to Hollywood and write for the movies:

“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Well, sadly, it eventually did get around. Nevertheless, for the next forty years, Hecht outcompeted the idiots, not only winning an Oscar (for the story for Underworld) and nominations for others, but making a large and steady living as script doctor for David Selznick and many others producers and directors.

Hecht denigrated his screenwriting career, but significantly, he was able to write, produce, and direct some movies of his own, ambitious expressions of what he thought an artistic movie should be. (I’ve not seen any of these, but Crime Without Passion, Actors and Sin and Angels Over Broadway are said to be the best of them).

In the end though, even heaped with praise from critics and serious moviegoers, none of Hecht’s films turned a dime, illustrating that eternal tension between art and commerce. The mystery of how to get their butts in the seat (or their eyes in a book) with becoming a “hack and sellout” remains forever an insoluble matter of alchemy.

As biographies go, MacAdams’s book often feels perfunctory, hurried, and undistinguished, but Ben Hecht was such a colorful and fabulous personality (even when he’s dislikable, which is often), that his story almost tells itself.

If you want more color and dash, I’d recommend Hecht’s autobiography, Child of the Century (especially his account of his newspapering days). Fantastically entertaining as that one is, though, you’ll need to down a dozen grains of salt while reading it. The fabulous Ben Hecht was also a first-rate fabulist, not only in the movies, but in telling his own life story.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Anonymous said...

Excellent reviews that give the essence of each book. Mr.Burchfield's recent illness has not taken away the vitality of his critical faculties.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thank you, Anon!