Reading a memoir offers the unique experience of seeing someone’s life through their own eyes…. Which can be both a good and a bad thing. First off the conversational tone used in Don’t Call Me a Crook flows easily and keeps the reader engaged. On the other hand the story meanders along like a drunken fable, keeping in chronological order sure, but also recounting the matter of his life in what can only be described as a bragging tone of juvenile triumphs. With the same laid back air of one discussing the weather Bobby talks about violence, death, theft, and the engines of ships. He clearly isn’t looking for approval but an audience who would be shocked and held in awe for all his many adventures. What he doesn’t realize that while we might listen with our mouths slightly ajar, it is more with a dawning horror than a growing sense of admiration that we finish his tale.
As a reader of mostly fiction (and occasional writer of the same) I always find myself looking for the hidden meaning, the sense of symbolism and subtext that can turn the average story into something of fine literary merit. Considering the source material for this book I was surprised to find a current of human nature and human tragedy woven into Bobby’s recollections that I think totally escapes the author himself.
Bobby is a sociopath.
Of course, he doesn’t start off that way; he starts off as a frolicking fun loving chap who might lack for a clear focus or direction in life but who’s charm and is on par with an excitable puppy. His early adventures, or misadventures, involve a sort of mischief and whimsy. The things he swipes and the ways in which the swiping occur are entertaining and we neither fault Bobby nor really hold him accountable.
But something changes… Soon Bobby’s adventures take on a sinister edge, a violent streak and an acceptance of the darker parts of human nature. The scariest part is that Bobby himself is unaware of either the shift or that his current activities aren’t on the same forgivable level as his earlier mischief.
Watching the boy become the man and the man slowly turn into the monster while knowing that he is unaware of any change is a sobering experience. One reads the second half of the book wondering how far Bobby will go. The reader wonders if Bobby will see the error of his ways and if redemption lies in the epilogue.
The answer is no.
It is a big leap from petty thief to murderer but Bobby makes it without batting an eye. His lack of guilt and subsequent actions leave little room to doubt his severe disconnect from his fellow human beings.
By the end of the book I was mesmerized but not in the way I think Bobby intended. The story ends almost abruptly and one knows that Bobby went on to have more adventures. In a sick way I wanted to know what happened next while at the same time feeling relieved that I wasn’t going to be party, even by proxy, to Bobby’s crimes.
Honestly, I enjoyed reading the book even if it did wander on and on a bit toward the end where Bobby at last succumbs to the easy to fall into trap that threatens every memoir or biography; eventually the story turns into nothing but a long list of “And then I did this,” followed by “After that, I did this” with no overriding theme or sense of intended cohesion except of course that it is our narrator who is present in all the adventures.
This is a trap, as previously stated, that is not only common but easy to fall victim to and thus I am willing to make allowances for it. The book was published in 1935 by a small publisher and perhaps we might forgive Bobby for not being a literary marvel… it is enough that he is a good storyteller.
Even if the meaning of his story is beyond him.
Feel free to read the book for yourself and let me know what you think!