"Oklahoma Robin Hood"
A reprint of Pretty Boy by W.M. Cunnigham, originally published in 1936, is now available from Mongrel Empire Press (ISBN # 978-0985133795 $16.36). Pretty Boy is a historical fiction about Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, an Oklahoma bank robber, and a proletarian crime novel. The story is fast-paced with plenty of action, local color, and bank robbery scenes. The protagonist jumps off the page as a local boy taking care of his family and helping his neighbors, in his own way. Readers get a fascinating sense of small-town Oklahoma life as Pretty Boy and his sidekick Eddie run into plenty of other characters during their journey.
The novel begins a bit slowly as Pretty Boy is with his wife and son, but soon enough Pretty Boy and Eddie have their first run-in with the police. The novel is nonstop from that first run-in to the end. Along the way, the protagonist, known as Robin Hood in his neck of the woods in the book and in real life, helps anyone who might need an extra hand. At one point, he leaves money in a neighbor’s mailbox to pay for the wife’s funeral.
The most successful aspect of the novel is the dialect. The story is rife with lines like, “Naw, don’t make a special trip. Just any time you happen to be goin’ in for grub” that are rarely overdone or conspicuous. The reader can easily fall into the world of the back roads of rural 1930s Oklahoma.
The strict inner code that the pair of bank robbers have is certainly meant to give the impression that the “bad guys” are better people than the cops, the bankers, and the other people in power. While they carry Tommy guns and use them on Federal Agents, they rarely aim to kill. At one point, the pair roughs up a man who has been following him because they suspect he is a federal agent. When they find out the man is not a Federal Agent, they regret having hurt him: “’Town marshall,” [Pretty Boy] said. ‘Jesus, why didn’t you say so!’…[Pretty Boy] was feeling like an ass. He stood watching the man squirm with pain. ‘Well, by God!’ he said. ‘I sure got you wrong and I’m sorry. Le’s load ‘im in the back seat.’”
In addition to not having a problem with the local authorities or citizens who leave them alone, they also make a point of being generous with what they have stolen: “Wherever they found poverty they left a sack of silver or a roll of small bills, and some of the people were so grateful that they cried.”
While the novel is not particularly violent or gory by modern standards, Cunningham did not shy away from portraying the vivid details of living a life on the lamb. Pretty Boy has a “game foot,” which regularly causes him trouble. He is unable to get medical attention for the foot or for any of the other various wounds his has from his rough lifestyle.
At times, “Pretty Boy” is clumsily plotted. Early on, the events in the first few chapters, the protagonist has no motivation to get from one scene to the next. One thing happens, and then the next, and then the next, with little to no connection. However, after the story gets going, the plotting is more sophisticated.
Overall, the portrayal of “Pretty Boy” is fairly accurate. Almost all of the actions in the novel are based on real-life events. The climate of the story very successful paints “Pretty Boy” as a hero by emphasizing police brutality, political corruption, and unethical banking practices. Readers cannot help but love “Pretty Boy” Floyd as much as his contemporaries appeared to have done.
Reviewed by Casey Brown
Casey Brown is a senior English major at Cameron University where she works in the Center for Writers and on the Cameron Collegian. She also works as an Editor on the Cameron University student art and literary journal The Gold Mine and The Oklahoma Review. Her book reviews have previously appeared in The Oklahoma Review.