“I’m worried that we are letting some great books of the recent past slide out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we can all name perhaps, but that group of books that comes next.”Sounds just about jake to us. The Grand Vizier’s choice? Edward Anderson’s Depression-era classic, THIEVES LIKE US. To wit:
“They steal …”
According to Raymond Chandler, THIEVES LIKE US (1937) is “one of the great forgotten novels of the ’30s”. Given that Edward Anderson published only one other novel (HUNGRY MEN, in 1935), and that Anderson garners little more than a footnote in the margins of American literature, it is perhaps unsurprising that THIEVES LIKE US has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Taking its cue from the social realism of John Steinbeck’s dustbowl sagas, and utilising the spare, hard-boiled rhythms of Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammet, THIEVES LIKE US represents a literary masterclass in social critique. Anderson took to the road to research his debut novel, HUNGRY MEN, which chronicled the plight of the transients and hobos who travelled the trains during the Depression of the `30s; his experience had not noticeably diminished his compassion for a disenfranchised, alienated underclass by the time he came to write THIEVES LIKE US.
HUNGRY MEN won the Doubleday Story prize in 1935; Anderson used the prize money to travel to Texas, where he interviewed his cousin, then a convicted bank robber serving time in Huntsville State Penitentiary. Taking the contemporary exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as his starting point, the author recounted the exploits of the young jail-breaker Bowie and his lover Keechie as they twist and turn in a desperate, doomed attempt to escape the law, their criminal background, and the eventually lethal suspicions of society at large.
America had suffered economic deprivation on the scale of the Depression-era ’30s before, most notably in the 1870s and the 1890s. What made the depression of the ’30s different was the mobility of the ravaged underclass; when the communist authorities in the USSR sanctioned the screening of John Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), in order to demonstrate the folly of capitalism, it had to be withdrawn again when the proletariat marvelled at how even the most deprived of the American poor could afford to drive cars.
Bowie and Keechie’s battle to establish a life worth living was not a new story to proletarian America, but their cross-country flight and dogged determination to stay one step ahead of the law suggested that – in theory at least – it was possible to escape the ties that bind. The Promised Land beckoned, and all a man and a woman needed was a tank full of gas and one even break …
* With abject apologies to Jean Genet