Written by Larry McMurtry and the screenwriter Diana Ossana, the novel "Pretty Boy Floyd" possesses many of the hallmarks of McMurtry's own fiction: a Western backdrop where myth and grubby reality overlap; a boyish hero beloved by women and given to recurrent bouts of melancholy and sadness, and a Dickensian supporting cast of cowboys, whores, farmers and petty criminals.
The book, written in conjunction with a screenplay on the same subject, tells the story of the famous 1930s outlaw, Charles Arthur (Pretty Boy) Floyd, an Oklahoma bank robber who became such a folk hero that 20,000 people supposedly went to his funeral in 1934.As depicted by McMurtry and Ossana, Charley emerges as a charming bandit who more or less stumbles into a life of crime. He's portrayed as handsome, well mannered and boyishly sweet. He never shoots anyone unless his own life is in danger, and he's always polite to the bank tellers he robs. He's the sort of guy who says "Aw, applesauce" when he's angry.
In fact, while earlier McMurtry novels like "Lonesome Dove" and "Anything for Billy" effectively deconstructed the old frontier myths, "Pretty Boy Floyd" perpetuates and polishes the myth of the likable gangster.
While Charley Floyd is not exactly glamorized in this book - his day-to-day existence is made to seem a rather drab, hand-to-mouth affair - he is romanticized as a charming, sympathetic and well-meaning hero.
His lies - to his wife, his girlfriends, the police - are shrugged off as the prevarications of an overgrown boy who really doesn't know any better. His crimes, including the murder of several police officers, are explained as the acts of someone who is simply trying to survive.
Much is made of Charley's halfhearted efforts to go straight, and his generosity toward friends, neighbors and family is repeatedly mentioned. He is even referred to several times as a sort of modern-day Robin Hood.
"I was just a green country kid that got caught on a job that I didn't know much about," Charley tells a newspaper reporter, "but I guess that was the job that put its mark on me and I could never shake it off. I tried, though."
When we first meet Charley, he's a 21-year-old hick who is bored with the monotony and poor financial rewards of farming in Oklahoma.
In a slapstick scene worthy of the Three Stooges, Charley and a friend somehow manage to pull off a bumbling stick-up: they hold up an armored car and make off with enough money for Charley to buy himself a fancy new suit, a robin's-egg-blue Studebaker, a garnet bracelet for his girlfriend, an 18-karat gold ring for his wife and some nifty toys for his 9-month-old son.
It's not long before the law is in hot pursuit of Charley. Indeed, he will spend the rest of his life on the run: pulling bank robberies and hiding from the police and the FBI.
In the course of relating Charley's adventures, McMurtry and Ossana give us colorful sketches of the major players in Charley's life. To begin with, there's Ruby, his long-suffering wife, whom he abandons for months, even years at a time.
Broke and worried about her son, Dempsey, Ruby tries to leave Charley: she divorces him and marries a sweet, supportive baker named Lenny, whom she realizes she does not love. It's not long before she's back with Charley, sitting in one drafty room or another, waiting for him to return for a day or two from his life on the road.
Though Charley says he's completely devoted to Ruby, he spends a considerable amount of time with two other women: Ma Ash, a feisty former whore who freely dispenses sex and maternal advice, and Beulah Baird, a bossy ex-waitress who loves to spend men's money on clothes and pretty trinkets.
Charley's partner in crime is a suave cowboy named George Birdwell, who shares his taste for philandering. George sees little of his wife, Bob, a hard-drinking dame who tries to conceal her loneliness with a lot of tough talk; he's not even terribly devoted to Red, his favorite whore, whom he's happy to cheat on with other pretty faces.
McMurtry and Ossana ask us to care about these not especially likable people by relating events from their point of view and by focusing on their private feelings rather than on the consequences of their actions. The narrative has the speed and lightness of a made-for-television movie; it dances quickly from incident to incident, pausing only here and there to cast a warm halo of sentimentality around its heroes.
As the novel progresses, Charley's bank robberies gradually recede into the background. Like so many recent McMurtry characters, Charley finds himself increasingly torn between the demands of his profession and his yearnings for domesticity.
By the time he's at the top of the FBI's Most Wanted list, he wants only to settle down to a "normal" life with Ruby and their son.
For all McMurtry and Ossana's concerted efforts to make Charley and his pals sympathetic and engaging, it's hard not to feel that they deserve what they get.