Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: The Crook

Don’t Call Me a Crook!: A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime by Bob Moore (Dissident Books, 2009) is the autobiography of a thief, liar, womanizer, gigolo, bigot . . . and murderer. And, no matter how strenuously he denies it, a crook.

He’s not one bit sorry for it either.

“It is a pity there is getting to be so many places that I can never go back to,” Bob Moore explains at the start, “but all the same, I do not think it is much fun a man being respectable all his life.”

This isn’t a saga for delicate minds, frail nerves, or fine moral and political sensibilities. It is tawdry, crudely written, and one of the gamiest accounts of criminal life I’ve read.

We all know autobiographies are always untrustworthy—one can’t imagine them not being edited, air-brushed, filtered, and self-serving. (Here’s one you’ll never see: I Was History’s Worst Monster and I’m Genuinely Sorry and Apologize to Everyone for All Eternity by Adolf Hitler.)

But even if he is a full-stop liar, Moore’s boastful account of his life on the lam around the globe, from Scotland to Europe, from the United States to China, can be read as an exposé of a corrupt, impulsive, jittery, and restless mind. You close the book wondering if his crimes were even worse than he lets on.

Moore was born in Glasgow, Scotland, probably around 1898. He attempted to enlist to fight in World War I, was rejected as too young, but then managed to sneak by on his next try. To his regret, though, he never achieved his dream of fighting in the trenches:

“So when I found out I had to wear overalls and grease aeroplanes . . . and never kill anyone at all . . . I began to be sorry that I had enlisted at all.”

After being struck on the head by a propeller (which seemed to have had no salutary effect), Moore left the service, studied to be an engineer, and set off across the Seven Seas, sailing straight into trouble by ripping $10,000 worth of diamonds off a smuggler, once he reaches the States.

After returning to Glasgow, Moore married a fellow Glaswegian, had a child, and hurriedly shed both as he zipped back to America. Eventually, his family tired of his antics and shipped him overseas by way of Egypt and Australia. He wreaked havoc all along the way. Back in America, he helped smuggle other Europeans across the Canadian border. Somewhere in all this frenzied living, he joined the bootlegging business as a driver.

Moore became a creature of the Roaring Twenties as he pinballed his way through that rowdy decade—stealing, brawling, mugging, occasionally clawing his way up from the underworld to seduce lonely, wealthy women, then diving back down into the murk, his pockets full, only to get ripped off by other thieves. Along the way, he stopped by Times Square to mug gay men. He may well have murdered a gangster in Hoboken for ripping him off (though he works to cover his tracks in the narrative. Never know when coppers are going to show up and start asking questions!)

Moore never held a job for any length of time, especially outside a ship’s engine room. Chronically combative, especially toward any and all authority, he was impervious to command, legitimate or not. There could be no legitimate authority over Bob Moore. Ever.

One of his longest-lasting jobs was a seven-month engineering gig spent steering a millionaire’s yacht all over Long Island Sound while the Roaring Twenties boomed away on the upper decks. (Despite the orgies, I found this to be one the book’s duller sections, revealing the author’s lack of interest in anything beyond surface details.)

Lest you think his contempt for his employers makes Moore a romantic, anti-authoritarian, anarcho-socialist, I must disabuse you of such quaint notions. He may have hated the rich and powerful, but he has nothing good to say about those next to and below his strata, either: other sailors, women, gays, blacks, Chinese, no one would want to be around him for long.

Unlike Jack Black (about whom I’ve written here), Moore has no deep connections with other citizens of the underworld. He’s no one’s friend or co-conspirator. Jack Black saw his world whole and took an interest in the people around him. Often drunk, Moore saw his era in sodden glimpses: Al Capone’s car riding by; a brief suspicion that a young woman who tends to him while he’s hiding out is Anna Hauptmann, wife of Lindbergh baby kidnapper Richard Hauptmann.

One of the most harrowing sections is Moore’s account of his experiences on the S.S. Vestris, a cargo-passenger ship that sank off the coast of Virginia in 1928 with the loss of over a hundred lives, most of them passengers. (This is one of the few corroborative incidents from Moore’s life.)

Moore never learned his lessons. Even a stint in the worst jail in Argentina failed to quench his thirst for trouble. His exploits turned even more harrowing after he hooked up with a psychopath named Mitchell, a character even more lacking in impulse control than he is. The pair shipped off to China—right when the Communist revolution was about to explode.

Here, Moore’s account take a squalid, violent, and murderous turn when he sails up the Yangtze into China’s wild interior. Exaggerated or not, it’s a miracle he survived, but you may not admire him for it. He may seem a roguish, blue-collar hero in Glasgow, but in China, he’s a hardened racist colonialist.

Moore’s book was first published in 1935 in England, under the guidance of an editor named Pat Spry, a name that seems an alias like Moore’s. The book reads like a breather between adventures. I get a sense that Moore plunged back down into the underworld, the law and the devil burning his tail, before the ink even dried. According to this article via the Dissident Books website, he died in 1938, leaving behind another embittered wife, and a son.

Unlike other true crime biographies I’ve read—such as Jack Black’s—there’s no ache of regret, no whiff of reform. The title alone tells all: like a good psychopath, Moore has a handy excuse for nearly everything he does.

It’s a blessing Don’t Call Me a Crook! is relatively short. I found Moore to be difficult company, sometimes fascinating, often appalling. He comes off as glib chatterbox with a surface charm that wears off quickly. He makes much of being a swell guy who gets ripped off whenever he tries to lend a helping hand. As for his victims, well, they learned a good lesson, didn’t they? Meeting such a rogue in a book is one thing. In real life, I’d say g’night after the third whiskey. For sure, I’d count all my fingers after shaking his hand.

While Moore employs clever turns of phrase, has an excellent eye for the details of ship life and people’s dress and behavior, the book is clumsily, hurriedly written, in the rushed manner of a life too quickly lived to have brought much joy. His admirers claim he loved life and embraced it to the fullest. Some would say he failed to stand still long enough to notice. Or long enough to care.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Now Playing In Your Living Room: Moonrise Kingdom

For anyone—and that includes me—who’s dreamed of running away from home or discovering that they’re an orphan, director Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (now out on DVD) will provide some bittersweet, oddball fun. This off-kilter tale of thwarted very young love strives to weave together elements of Forbidden Games, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Great Escape, with a dash of Lord of the Flies. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I didn't like it altogether, but you will have sweet time.

Moonrise Kingdom is on a set on a resort island on the Maine Coast. It’s September 1965, end of Summer. Sam (Jared Gilman) is as orphaned and despised member of the Khaki Scouts, who are camping on the island. Ultra-precocious Sam is so mired in Dickensian misfortune, his own foster family won’t take him back.

On the other end of the island, Suzie (Kara Hayward) is the oldest daughter in an unhappy family parented by chronic misery as represented by Wes Anderson stock member Bill Murray—in another burn-out role--and Frances McDormand, a mom who needs the assistance of a bullhorn to communicate with her issue.

Together, young Sam and Suzie weave and execute a plot to elope from their miserable lives. Adult-brilliant as they both are, their need and passion blind them to the fact that they are on an island that’s only about 16 miles long and a few wide, as elfin narrator and chorus Bob Balaban assures us.

It won’t take long for unhappy, clueless, harrumphing grownups (including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton, who is swirled in like frosting as a blue-caped Evil Social Worker Witch) and Sam’s hateful, knife-wielding fellow scouts to track these pubescent lovers down like dogs and cruelly separate them for good.

But maybe it doesn’t matter that they’re on an island. What these two young lovers are really running away from is adulthood, a realm with little to offer either of them. As always happens in these movies, the grownups are so dumbed-down and worn out by life, they’ve lost the capacity to even recognize joy in others, long after it’s died in them.

Moonrise Kingdom has more whimsy per frame than director Anderson’s other movies. It’s a magic box movie that often charms without really being involving. The film opens in the manner of an old-time slideshow on a carousel, with sets so pastel, rounded, and immaculate they appear Pixar-generated—there’s not a sharp corner or splinter anywhere.

More startling is the decision to portray the unfolding series of escapes, chases, captures, and escapes like a 1960s wartime adventure movie, such as The Great Escape. As in Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, the kids talk in pseudo-adult, tough-guy lingo, the movie dialogue I grew up hearing during that era (but would only recite while play-acting episodes of Combat! during recess).

For these kids, movie characters are their role models, instead of the grownups they’d be modeling themselves on in a different world. This is funny for a while, but never seems as poignant as perhaps intended. The dialogue seems to be squeezed into them, instead of emerging as a natural outgrowth of their experience. I used to want do to the things they did—pretend I was an orphan and light out for the territory like Huckleberry Finn, but I felt no identification. Near the end, the movie seems to wind down in anxious, random hugger-muggery than build to an exhilarating conclusion.

While the movie doesn’t jell for me, there are many things to like. On a technical level, there’s the lovingly detailed production and Robert Yeoman’s autumnal cinematography. There’s also Alexandre Desplat’s plucky score, accompanied by Britten and other classical composers throughout.

I got a big laugh out of the cheap ludicrous local theatre production of an epic Benjamin Britten opera, a scene that alludes to the high-school theatre production of Apocalypse Now staged in Anderson’s Rushmore, another movie about minds too big for the world they live in.

The cast is mostly fun, too: scoutmaster Edward Norton, dutiful, sensitive, serious, even with a cigarette always at hand; Harvey Keitel also pops up for an uncredited cameo. Finally, there’s Jason Schwartzman, an Anderson ensemble member, as a crooked Khaki Scoutmaster who claims powers to marry any couple he wants, so long as he’s properly compensated, preferably with Scout money.

In the end, Moonrise Kingdom reminded me that whimsy is best served in fast, light packages. Even though the film is only 94 minutes long, it’s a little too long to sustain its air of enchantment.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Poster image by Focus Features
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.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on "McTeague" by Frank Norris

We never learn the first name of the eponymous protagonist of this tough, grim, and disturbing novel, written by Frank Norris and first published in 1899.

We learn much else though: McTeague is a crude, animalistic block of humanity, “a young giant . . . moving his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscle, slowly, ponderously.” His simple brain grinds along equally slow and ponderous. As you also might be alarmed to learn, McTeague is a cut-rate dentist who lives and works in a one-room office on a rough and ready corner of Polk Street in 1890s San Francisco.

The world portrayed in this novel is not the Gay ‘90s San Francisco of waistcoats and jeweled feathered hats, but the San Francisco that most people actually lived and labored in, the city out of sight, grimy, gritty, and often barren. McTeague is the story of small lives compressed into small dark rooms.

McTeague is not the dentist folks go to if they can afford another. He labors like a gorilla, sometimes even pulling teeth with his huge bare hands. (For those who suffer from Fear of the Dentist, the novel may throb like an exposed nerve in a broken tooth.)

McTeague charges his patients only enough to keep his life stumping along. His only remaining ambition is to buy a giant gold-plated fake tooth to hang outside his office window.

Then, one day, this simple brute soul is swept away by a torrent of feelings he doesn’t understand and over which he has no control--feelings that will hurl him over a precipice.

It begins when Marcus Schouler, a fatuous, pompous companion, sends his cousin Trina Sieppe to McTeague for dental care. Trina is a very young girl from the East Bay, tiny, doll-like, and as unwise as McTeague is in the ways of the world.

One afternoon, while Trina lies in a sedated slumber in his dentist’s chair, McTeague is suddenly stormed by rumbling passion for her and, like the prince in the fairy tale, kisses her as she lies unconscious. Then, when she awakens, he passionately, roughly begs her to marry him.

Normally, you would expect—especially these days—that such a courtship might end in another court, say civil or criminal. But gender roles and mores were different then and McTeague becomes a man driven, infatuated, and determined by passion, unswayed by restraint, perspective, and sense. With his great size and ursine personality, he overwhelms Trina and finally persuades her to marry and come live with him on Polk Street.

But there are complications. Marcus Schouler has had the eye for Trina for much longer than McTeague. But as he fancies himself a good sport and true friend to McTeague, he bows aside and everything between the three of them seems dandy . . . until, just before the wedding, a lottery ticket that Trina bought from one of McTeague’s neighbors wins her $5,000 (a fortune about equal to over $1 million today).

Marcus is more than out a girl. He thinks he’s also been cheated out of a fortune by poor hapless McTeague. He can’t get the loss out of his system. Soon, McTeague’s and Schouler’s friendship ends in a stunningly bloody brawl, a scene written with raw tension and brio.

But for that misfortune, married life seems to suit McTeague, at first. Soon though, his fortunes founder after he’s disbarred from practicing dentistry for not having a license.

McTeague, unable to adapt to the loss of his livelihood, turns to Trina to help them both out, only to find his bride is a fierce miser, insanely obsessed with money and determined to cling to every penny of her fortune, to where she drives them both into grim poverty.

McTeague collapses under the weight of his failure and his wife’s greed. It’s a loud fall, too. His limited mind is unable to cope with forces beyond his ken, both without, and, most dangerously, within. You don’t “make small” with a gorilla like McTeague.

In fact, with pitifully few exceptions, no one in McTeague’s world seems capable of self-restraint or finding a way to reason. Only base passions rule. Under the indifferent thumbscrew of life and society, unruly passion soon turns murderous.

McTeague is a naturalist novel, a genre that rose to prominence at the end of the 19th Century, starting with French novelist Emil Zola. It expresses a “scientific”/ Darwinian view of behavior, pointed up by the fact that we never learn McTeague’s first name. It often reads as a detached, clinical, sometimes satirical, portrait of society’s lower rungs (with an added unfortunate whiff of anti-Semitism at one point.)

There are many pleasures to be found, though. A family adventure to a variety show at the old Orpheum Theatre on Market Street is a delightful interlude that colorfully recalls a lost world of live entertainment. There are also winsome scenes of the newlywed McTeagues’ first days of marriage and the tender comic courtship of two elderly neighbors.

Some critics have called McTeague a tragedy, but I find this novel to be too deterministic for tragedy. It looks too much askance and amused at its characters. With no first name, McTeague becomes, under Frank Norris’s stern moralistic pen, like a lab rat, struggling and drowning under the clinical eye of a behavioral scientist. (Sam Peckinpah’s nihilist film classic Straw Dogs takes a similar, but even more despairing, approach.)

McTeague feels more like a sigh of pathos than agonizing tragedy. Unlike a tragic work, there seems to be little sense of better paths not taken. Norris offers McTeague and the other characters no choices, no other possibilities for life. They barrel on in the grip of their base animal instincts and morbid monetary obsessions of the society around them. At times, like Peckinpah, Norris seems to be melodramatically whipping these poor folks on to their doom to prove his thesis.

McTeague is still a worthwhile read for serious, adventurous readers. It is vividly and authentically written with superbly detailed, colorful portrayals of everyday life in San Francisco and environs. Despite its air of disdain toward its characters, suspense and terror grows as the narrative reaches a melodramatic—if not wholly convincing--climax in a heat-blasted Death Valley summer.

Frank Norris’s Gravestone, Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

This was Norris’s second novel and it was hugely influential. Only a handful of books followed from his pen, including the even more famous The Octopus, which portrayed a bloody war between the Southern Pacific Railroad and California wheat farmers. Two more linked novels were to follow, but another set of outside forces got to Norris when he died at the age of 32 from peritonitis. He was buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland.

Curiously, he was not quite the scruffy raging Bohemian I at first assumed—he lies under a large obelisk erected by his U.C. Berkeley fraternity, Phi Delta Gamma, who, to this day, holds the annual Frank Norris Dinner in his honor.

His novels also lives on, especially McTeague. In addition to a 1982 opera adaptation directed by Robert Altman, it was famously adapted in 1924 by director Erich von Stroheim into what was intended to be a ten-hour epic known as Greed. It was eventually cut to two hours by its studio, MGM. I saw it many years ago, but unfortunately recall little about it. Somehow, I suspect Norris’s tendentious, intense book will stay with me longer.

(Re-edited 11/11/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photos by author.
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.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

And He's Off!

(Last of a Series on Thoroughbred Horse Racing)

As promised earlier, I celebrated my annual 21st birthday at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley last Saturday afternoon, along with my wife, Elizabeth, my sister-in-law Margaret and her husband Charles.

Comfortably seated in the exclusive Turf Club high above the track, we had lunch while seven races thundered by below. I bet a total of $72. I won back $68. I predicted it would go like this.

My biggest win was $35 on the fourth race, the $100,000 Pikes Peak Dancer Stakes. I placed an “exotic” bet known as the “superfecta wheel”: one horse to win for sure (the wheel), the next three to cross the finish line in any order. It cost me $6. The winning horse was Miss Empire, her jockey Russell Baze, the winningest jockey in North American racing history. (Note: “Bet Russell Baze” = good betting plan.)


Since my interest in horse racing sped from a slow trot to a cavalry charge, what has struck me is how intellectually strenuous, even exhausting, handicapping and betting horse races can be . . . that is,  if you choose to take it seriously.

Casual bettors don’t need to pour cans of brain fuel into playing the ponies. All it takes is a few minutes before a race begins, sitting in the Turf Club or with the hoi polloi in the stands below (who I think have the better view), studying the program, getting a sense of who’s good and who’s not so.

Make straight, modest one-two-three bets on horses with the best odds (factoring in their jockeys), and you’ll have an exciting time and keep most of your shirt on, plus or minus a few buttons. Serious bettors call it “good money management.” Maybe you’ll get lucky betting $20 on Last Place Nag, that 20-to-1 male in the sixth race, but more than likely not, (though my brother-in-law did, on a horse named Reigning Rubies in the fifth)

Played this way, a day at the racetrack is cheap compared to most other entertainments. (Admission at Golden Gate is only four to six dollars.) Most of the track’s money comes from off-track betting. The food is mostly fairly priced (though beware the liquor prices at the Turf Club.) I’ve easily wasted more on a Saturday evening on Piedmont Avenue.

But, as in all sports betting, betting to win more than five or ten bucks, the payoff for most casual bettors, takes serious concentration, analytical skill, and plates of moxie. because, in order to win the bigger money, you have to bet against the crowd, bet against the 2-1 horses . . . bet on those long shots. You have to do homework, just like our mean old parents made us do.

It also takes genuine sportsmanship—meaning a love of the sport and full embrace of its risks. No matter how I improve my odds with study, no matter how sharp my eye for that long-shot pony, they’re still against me. That bigger payoff a serious bettor is looking for entails bigger risk. When I lose, no getting mad and no getting desperate!—once I reach my bank limit, I must go right home.

Handicapping and betting on horse races is, without drawing a direct comparison, as complicated a game as chess, if you choose to play it that way.

The more I handicapped races, the more complications I encountered. The factors considered by professional handicappers are almost numerous beyond counting, and each factor is considered against other factors.

Further, these factors are always shifting in relation to each other: horse versus jockey, versus trainer versus track, versus condition of track, versus condition of the track the last time the horse ran on it versus others tracks the horse raced on versus the field of other horses the horse ran against . . . I’d better stop before you all surf over to “Roseanne for President.”


I was ill with anemia when I started handicapping. Unable and unwilling to deal with anything both complicated and profound, I craved something complicated and dumb; something that mattered not a jot in the scheme of Creation, but at the same time would keep my brain gears greased. I didn’t want to think about God, Death or, most of all, Mitt Romney.

After my recent experience at the Alameda County Fair racing, thinking about thoroughbred horses running in a circle seemed to be a perfect workout for the brain. I could screw it up, stop when I got tired, and no one would give a shit, least of all me.

For a few weeks, I handicapped the Saturday race card at Golden Gate Fields (I didn’t bet. I didn’t have the spare change and have no desire to bet off-track). My first reference was Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies by professional handicapper Richard Eng.

Using i-Pad and computer, it took me over three hours of online study for each Saturday race card. I used several online information sources—the morning line on the program and house betting line report, both provided by Golden Gate Fields; the free handicapping calls by Chuck Dybdal from The Daily Racing Form via the GGF site; and links to Equibase, the enormous statistical database for North American thoroughbred horseracing. There’s also a helpful website for beginners, Hello Race Fans! By the end, my anemic brain was bloodless from trying to collate all the information sweeping under my eyes.

I seem to be fairly decent handicapper, though. Each weekend, at least three or four of my horses won; most all of them wound up in the money (placing at least second or third). More than once, a longshot—the hardest horses of all to research and pick--came in. I’d win theoretical, speculative exotic bets, made post-race—not many, but enough to spur my desire to go to the track and see what I could do with $100.


The day came. Before we went, I added The Daily Racing Form Past Performance which detailed the record of every single horse on the card that day ($4.50), to my calibrations.

One part of my plan that didn’t pan out was visiting the horses in the paddock before each race. From our table in the Turf Club to the paddock was a five-plus minute maze walk, not including visiting the betting window before post time. The half-hour between races ticks by fast and after the second race, I had enough of the dash. This likely affected my results.

Outside of the stakes race, I didn’t do too well. Only one race, the sixth, had a longshot that seemed worth my money, but by post time, the rest of the pari-mutuel world was agreeing with me, raising its odds from 20 to 1 to 8 to 1. At that point I lost interest (and, as it turned out, the horse finished out of the money). The next race I got careless, abandoning my game plan for some longshots . . . well, lesson learned. Do my homework and, unless factors arise, stick with the plan.

To sum up, I got skunked in three races. We didn’t stay for the eighth and ninth, but when I checked my handicapping, I would have made back what I bet over both races. I only lost four dollars and had a good time in this year of hard times.

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.