Charley Floyd was pretty, but that's not enough these days

September 25, 1994|By Laura Lippman

In the early 1930s, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd became a folk hero by robbing banks and, occasionally, killing people who interfered with his vocation. Handsome, charming and feckless, this sometimes Public Enemy No. 1 cast a spell on every woman he met. When he died, thousands of people came to his funeral. Woody Guthrie immortalized him in a ballad.

It sure sounds like promising material for a novel. But a novel lasts a little longer than a ballad. And in the usually capable hands of Larry McMurtry and his new collaborator, Diana Ossana, "Pretty Boy Floyd" is merely the Accidental Bank Robber.

Clearly, the authors have great affection and respect for their subject, but why? Charley is well-mannered, greedy and impulsive. He loves whatever woman is closest at hand and does whatever he must do to survive. If his bank robberies are a political statement to his admirers, they are simply a quick supply of cash to him. Neither Al Capone nor Robin Hood, Charley wanders aimlessly across Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, defined primarily by what he eats, wears and drives. (Vinegar cobbler with raisins, a gabardine suit and a robin's-egg-blue Studebaker.) He can tell a lie, but he can't tell it well.

The novel, which began as a screenplay, still reads like one, with pitch-perfect dialogue that carries the story forward swiftly. But Pretty Boy Floyd's story is too thin to support 444 pages. A numbing pattern of robbery-apprehension-escape sets in, until the reader is almost rooting for G-man Melvin Purvis to show up.

In fact, the real story in "Pretty Boy Floyd" may be the unusual collaboration behind it. According to a note included in the novel, McMurtry wrote five pages a day, which Ms. Ossana then expanded to 10. This arrangement has led to speculation about whether Mr. McMurtry used his established reputation to bolster a first-time novelist.

Who cares? Doubling Mr. McMurtry's daily output does seem a backward way to work, but I don't think it's necessarily doomed to fail. His work has always been wildly uneven, and it seems unfair to assign praise or blame to individual sentences.

In its style and story-telling, "Pretty Boy Floyd" probably falls somewhere in the middle of the McMurtry pack. In fact, Charley is not unlike Danny Deck, another one of Mr. McMurtry's wanderers, who has appeared in two of his best ("All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers," "Terms of Endearment") and one of his worst ("Some Can Whistle").

But the central problem in "Pretty Boy Floyd" is primarily one of timing. In a world where 11-year-olds are killers, the romanticism of a handsome young robber has worn thin. Today, Charley, in his 20s when he began robbing banks, would be a doddering small-timer. And if thousands came to his funeral, chances are they would all be journalists.

Ms. Lippman is a staff writer for The Sun.

Title: "Pretty Boy Floyd"

Authors: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 444 pages, $24

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