Jeff Guinn has rapidly became my favorite nonfiction writer. Late last year, I read his excellent book about the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral and then back in May I read and profiled his most recent release, a superb examination of Jim Jones and Jonestown.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I read another Guinn book, his examination of infamous Depression-era bandits Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Mary-Esther has urged me to read it for years–she’s the one who put Guinn on my reading radar–and thanks again to her for introducing me to such a wonderful writer! (Thanks also to my dad for buying me the book. He couldn’t resist reading it himself before he gave it to me, which is just about the best endorsement of the book I can think of. Thanks, Dad!)
Thoughts on the Book
As with all the previous Guinn books I have read, Go Down Together is a masterful, well-researched, well-written biography/social history that sheds new light on events and people that everyone thinks they already know, with new details and well-supported insights.
And with the other books I have read by him, his treatment of his subjects is fair and even-handed. Most of the stuff I had read about Bonnie and Clyde made them out to either be glamorous outlaws or maddog killers, but as Guinn reveals, they were a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
Their time on the run was about as un-glamorous as could be, with the ragtag gang frequently being reduced to sleeping on the side of the road and providing their own medical attention to evade capture.
And criminal masterminds they were not, though they also were not complete bunglers and did seem to learn from many of their mistakes. But there is enough bad timing, bad calculations, and bad luck in their exploits to make for a great black comedy if there hadn’t been so many dead bodies in the aftermath. As Guinn notes, for all the mystique of them as bank robbers, they actually robbed comparatively few banks, with most of their crimes involving stealing cars or robbing small businesses for the equivalent of gas and food money.
What I actually found most interesting about them was their curious attitude toward violence. Contrary to the common image of them as psychopathic killers, their initial instincts were always to run rather than fight, which surprised me. They were big believers in Clyde’s brother Buck’s motto that “a good run was better than a poor stand.” But that also didn’t preclude them from responding with maximum intensity when they felt cornered. What fascinated me the most, however, was the fact that they never denied who they killed, even to their beloved families, whether it was law enforcement or bystanders who had the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Like most people, they were complex, and Guinn does a great job of presenting that aspect of them.
Perhaps where Guinn excels the most is in providing a proper context for understanding the times. I think it’s easy to read about Bonnie and Clyde and wonder what on earth they were thinking when they started what would ultimately become a 2-year-spree on the lam.
Guinn spends quite a bit of time fleshing out their respective childhoods, both of which involved bleak poverty in rural Texas before their families relocated to the West Dallas slums, where prospects were not any better than they were in the countryside. He also delves into life during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl in Texas, and with that background, it’s a lot easier to see why they thought a miserable life on the run, which they always knew was going to end fatally, was at least marginally more promising than a miserable life at home.
Before he took to writing about iconic figures in American criminal history, Guinn was both a reporter and a novelist, and he brings the best of both worlds to anything he writes. He has the instincts of a fine investigative journalist and the resulting research he uncovers is always fascinating. But he also knows how to tell a good story, just like a talented novelist. His books, I have discovered, are always immensely readable and insightful, and Go Down Together is no exception.
Follow the link below to the next page to read my thoughts about the movie!