Pretty Boy, by William Cunningham.
New York, The Vanguard Press, 1936.
undeservedly obscure (and extremely scarce) novel was inspired by the
career of legendary Oklahoma country gangster Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd.
A fine piece of mid-Depression literature, and an almost-unique fusion
of crime/gangster novel with an agrarian/proletarian sensibility, the
book holds up terrifically on its own merits, and assumes even greater
stature when one considers its influence (in my opinion, anyway) on
hard-boiled literary icon Jim Thompson. The personal association between
Cunningham and Thompson is well-known -- they were colleagues for several
years in the Oklahoma WPA Writers Project (Thompson actually succeeded
Cunningham as head of the project in 1938) -- yet Thompson's biographers,
including the excellent Robert Polito, have paid virtually no attention
to Cunningham's actual writings, and have thus neglected
to even explore the question of literary influence. (The very
distinct stylistic and thematic connections between Pretty Boy
and Thompson's The Getaway
would be one of the most obvious starting points.) Cunningham,
in fact, is barely on the literary map at all: his 1935 book The Green Corn Rebellion earned him a passing
mention in Walter Rideout's oft-referenced study The Radical Novel in
the United States, but that's about it.
(And Rideout dismisses Pretty Boy
as little more than "an attempt to present the life of the gangster...in
terms of the economic conditions that forced him to act outside the
laws of capitalist society" -- an absurdly pedantic reading of the book.)
in my opinion, is easily the equal of most contemporaneous works in
a similar vein (Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us
being the most obvious), and it's an absolute crime that it's been out
of print for almost 70 years!