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go down together

21 april 2010

Conventional wisdom has it that the world is very, very dangerous just beyond our suburban Texas driveways. Out there, "they" are lying in wait to rob, carjack, murder, and rape us, while abducting our young ones. When we were kids (no matter how long ago that was), people left their doors unlocked, youngsters walked to school, and there were no razor blades in Halloween apples. When our grandparents were kids, back in the Depression, everybody was a good neighbor, pulling together in hard times, and you'd give the next guy the shirt off your back. Unless the next guy was a deputy sheriff and you were Clyde Barrow, of course, in which case you'd shoot him with an automatic weapon and then speed away in your stolen Ford V-8 to rob another filling station.

In Go Down Together, Jeff Guinn paints a grim, demystifying picture of the Depression. His Bonnie and Clyde are desperate, erratic kids out of control. But they are not the savage bad seed of legend. They have a certain ethic, inconsistent and rationalizing though it may be. They have generosity and a certain chivalry. But neither are they the white-trash knights of countervailing legend. Clyde in particular has a mean streak and a hair-trigger temper. He is impulsive, and he takes daredevil driving to such extremes that he is actually pretty bad at it on average, despite some famous exploits.

Above all, Guinn's Bonnie and Clyde are painted into roles (daring bandit, steely gun moll) by society, and then make their problems worse by enthusiastically adopting even more extreme versions of those roles. Is this the "true, untold" Bonnie and Clyde, as the book's subtitle promises? It's hard to say: "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend" is still the code of the West. Guinn has tried to print fact and debunk legend, but he has his work cut out for him.

Despite frequent disclaimers of "this is probably made up" and "we can't be sure what actually happened," Guinn crafts a compelling narrative out of the Barrow Gang's deadly confrontations with "the laws." His story is so florid that his epistemological uncertainty makes for all the better reading. One of Clyde Barrow's last acts was to visit his father in Dallas and show him a trunkful of money. Where did it come from? Where did it end up? Did it exist at all? Was it a down-payment from a wealthy gangster convict who expected Clyde to spring him from the Tarrant County Jail? Did the Louisiana sheriff who ambushed Clyde a few days later steal the cash and spend it on himself?

Clyde and Bonnie went through money like near beer. They had a certain Robin-Hood mystique, though Guinn makes it clear that they tended to steal from the moderately-badly-off and give to themselves. He prints the famous story of Clyde robbing a bank but giving $27 back to a customer, explaining that he was after the bank's money, not a poor depositor's. Where the bank got its money if not from poor depositors seems never to have crossed Clyde's mind, but the power of the gesture in Depression times overshadowed its illogic.

Among other things, the story of Bonnie and Clyde points to the lack of deterrent power in the death penalty. Early in his career of crime, Clyde became an accomplice to murder, and was destined for the electric chair. With no hope whatsoever, he became a professional mass murderer. The penalty for a dozen murders being the same as one, he figured he might as well get some fame and fun out of his fate.

Not that all doomed killers become desperadoes. But if you are inclined to shoot people who get in your way, the fact that the laws shoot back is inapt to discourage you. And paradoxically, perhaps, years and years of more measured justice in this country have resulted in a much safer place. I drove from Arlington to Austin last weekend, and thought the whole time that if it were 1933, I might have crossed paths with Clyde and Bonnie in their stolen V-8. Maybe they would have stolen mine – if I had a V-8, that is; I doubt they'd have been interested in a Honda Civic. But instead of a hail of gunfire, the worst thing that happened to me in Central Texas was some rain splashed on my windshield. We've come a long way.

Guinn, Jeff. Go Down Together: The true, untold story of Bonnie & Clyde. 2009. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.