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Two timeless, Depression-era novels from Edward Anderson

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Edward Anderson had a strange and sad career. He was born in Texas in 1905 and grew up in Oklahoma, serving his apprenticeship as a journalist on a small paper in Ardmore, Okla. Restless, he worked as a deckhand on a freighter, plied his fists as a prizefighter, had some small success as a musician and, when the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, roamed the roads and rails, learning the life of the hobo. This crucial experience led to fiction, and to his first novel, "Hungry Men" (University of Oklahoma Press, currently out of print, but with plenty of copies available on Amazon), which in 1933 caused the Saturday Review of Literature to pronounce him the heir to Hemingway and Faulkner.

A famous second novel, "Thieves Like Us" (published by Prior, Disruptive Press and in the Library of America anthology "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s"), followed in 1937, and Anderson came out to Hollywood. The screenwriting didn't work out, so he took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner, from which he was fired -- for anti-Semitism, according to one story -- in 1940. He drifted back to Texas, to alcoholism, to Swedenborgianism, and to the loopier fringes of the political right. He wrote a column for a local paper and died in 1969 in almost total obscurity. He was 63.

None of this is especially shocking, and it's certainly not edifying, but the two novels remain. Both of them are terrific, in their very different ways, and speak with a particular resonance at a time when the U.S. economy looks like it's falling apart. "Hungry Men" follows the travels of Acel Stecker, an out-of-work musician who drifts back and forth across America.

"How long have I been running around the country now?" he asks himself. "Two years. Damn near two years. It has been two years since I played in that Juarez cabaret. Godamighty. Two years I been on the bum. It would have scared me to death then if somebody had said: 'You won't even have a job two years from now.' I didn't have any guts then, though."

"Hungry Men" is written in the third person; but Anderson had instinctive gifts as a novelist, and the book takes us in and out of Acel's mind without any seeming effort. Acel's feelings have been beaten out of him, and his encounters in flop-houses, in freight cars, in court rooms, in a store trying to bum something to eat, are presented without inflection, combining the intimate with the deadpan to map out what Geoffrey O'Brien, writing in the Village Voice in 1983, called "the desolate geography of the book." O'Brien wrote that the book recalled "Beckett as much as it does Walker Evans."

The structure follows Acel's adventures, so the book is shaped almost as a series of disjointed short stories but held together by tone and perception. Anderson, himself no radical, constantly glances in the direction of politics.

" 'I'm getting fed up on this kind of life,' Bill said.

Acel nodded. 'It's pretty tough all right.'

'I'd rob a bank if I thought I could get away with it.' "

"Thieves Like Us" takes up this theme and centers on three escaped convicts who, in their desperation, have forgotten how to be afraid and do nothing else but rob banks. At first they enjoy success. They buy better clothes, more guns, faster cars and read about their escapades in the papers. The central character, Bowie, who killed a guy when he was 16, falls in love with Keechie, a young girl who's the cousin of one of his partners, establishing a narrative model -- love on the run -- that Hollywood followed countless times thereafter, notably in "Bonnie and Clyde," "Natural Born Killers" and in two film versions of "Thieves Like Us" (made by Nicholas Ray and Robert Altman). Anderson's second novel crackles with tension and has a very different mood from "Hungry Men" because the reader understands from the start that these characters are doomed. Hence their romance. The book lives best, not in its sometimes hard-boiled idiom, but in the moments between the action, when the characters are driving around Texas and Oklahoma, or holed up in a safe house or hotel:

"The green-shaded lamp in the kitchen of the Welcome Inn was burning, their signal that there had been no rumbles when he was gone, and now he closed the door quietly and the leaves on the walk crackled under his moving shoes. He lifted on the knob so the door would not scrape and went in. Pale coals studded the mound of dark ashes in the fireplace and then he saw Keechie sitting on the end of the cot by the shadowy radio."

There's a sense of tenderness and tentativeness toward life that corresponds to the constant anxiety that hovers somewhere right at the back of Bowie's mind. This poetic, almost haunted quality summons the memory of James Agee as much as Dashiell Hammett, and can carry through even into the action writing. Here's Anderson describing a car accident, a fulcrum moment that leads to the killing of two cops:

"Thrown from the sprung door of his car, Bowie rose from the parquet grass, feeling like a figure in a slow motion picture. He was on his feet now, a terrific weight on his back. Yonder was his car, the radiator caved in against a broken lamp-post and behind it was an old coupe, somebody inside of it groaning, its one lamp still burning."

"Thieves Like Us" snaps shut like a trap on its characters, and I'd bet that Nicholas Ray, having filmed it, kept it in mind when he made his more famous picture of youthful disillusion and defiance, "Rebel Without a Cause." Anderson himself never moved on anywhere, artistically, which is our loss because he made fiction that combined fluency of style with potency of form. But he did leave behind these two books, stories from the Depression, yet timeless, testaments to young people roaming the country, hungry and without prospects, sleeping rough or turning to crime. He's a writer who deserves to be rediscovered.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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