I have never been able to think of John Dillinger without the machine gun. I have never been able to think of Pretty Boy Floyd without the machine gun. I have never been able to think of Al Capone without the machine gun. And, then there was Machine Gun Jack McGurn whose name was nothing without the words machine gun. What would all those great gangster movies be without machine guns? PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, SCARFACE both the Paul Muni version and the Al Pacino version, THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT, THE GODFATHER, BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE UNTOUCHABLES.
I remember walking into a gunshop once and noticing several men gathered around a glass counter. I pressed closer for a better look. There, under that glass, was a model 1921 Thompson sub machine gun with detachable stock. In its own peculiar, dark, jagged looking way it was just simply beautiful. I loved the grain of the wood in that light, it had a red tinge to it and there were minor nicks and dings all over the stock and the grips.
The guy next to me said, So, this was Dillinger’s gun. The shop owner shrugged and said, Probably one of many. You think it has killed anybody, the customer asked. The shop owner smiled and said, Your guess. He stuck his hand inside the case and brushed a piece of dirt off the barrel. It isn’t for sale, is it, the customer asked. The shop owner took a step back and said, How do you sell a dream?
I saw a guy stick up a bank with a machine gun once. The man talking was a drifter by the name of Lucky Jack Ross. He was someone I met at the Clifton Hotel. Yeah, I saw this guy come into the bank with a machine gun. It was payday on the railroad. That’s when I lived in Kansas City. The whole thing happened so fast. And, smooth, Christ, the way this guy handled himself, it almost looked like he was dancing. But, it was his machine gun that got everyone’s attention. I don’t think the man said a dozen words the whole time. And, he never raised his voice. I already had my money and was about to drop it in the sack when he looked at me and said, You work in a factory? I looked straight into his eyes and said, No, the railroad. He smiled and said, Keep it, pal. You guys work hard for the money.
The bartender at Blackjack Willie’s told me once his old man had been on the police force at the time of the St. Valentine’s DayMassacre. Said, he was one of the first to arrive on the scene. The way he described it, it must’ve been a helluva sight. They used both shotguns and machine guns. Machine gun slugs had cut this one guy in half right along with his necktie. Said, another guy was lying on his side on the cement floor and the blood coming out of his mouth looked like all of his words had poured out in a red puddle.
When I wrote DILLINGER’S THOMPSON and the introductory essay MACHINE GUN DREAMS, I thought I had emptied myself of everything machine gun. All of it. The dark rich possibilities. The black sugar nightmares. But, over time, I discovered that I had barely scratched the surface where the machine gun, especially the Thompson, is concerned. And, lately, the more I started to think of DILLINGER’S THOMPSON, the more I realized that this was really an american metaphor with depths I had barely explored. I say metaphor because the machine gun is as rich in meaning as Hart Crane’s Bridge, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Faulkner’s Bear, Melville’s Whale.
I also realized that the machine gun also had to mean as much to Billie Frechette as it did to Dillinger even though she probably never took part in any actual bank robberies. Still, I’d like to think that in her way, she was as obsessed by guns as he was. That’s why DEATH’S MACHINE GUN takes place in Billie’s deepest fantasies and with Dillinger’s most potent rival, Death himself. Because there was a little bit of Etta Place and a little bit of Belle Star and a little bit of Calamity Jane and a little bit of Cattle Annie in Billie and there also had to be that drive toward the danger ground inside her, too. What we do know is that she was as tempestuous in her way as Dillinger was a daredevil in the way that he lived. That’s why I believe, though I can’t prove it, that she carried a little 25 auto under her lipstick, compact, and handkerchief in her purse. Just to be on the safe side.
If DILLINGER’S THOMPSON represents the dark american desire for the ultimate killing machine from a man’s point of view, then DEATH’S MACHINE GUN represents the twin desire from a woman’s point of view. And, I’m not just talking about penis envy. That’s really a simplification of the feminine desire to own a gun. And, in this case, not just any gun, but the kind of firearm that rains death in all directions, everywhere.
Because it’s all about empowerment. It’s all about the action and the juice. It was that way in 1933 and it is still that way. It’s all about claiming control of a life almost guaranteed to be marginal. It’s all about not just claiming control of a marginal life, but also using that kind of power to elevate yourself to a kind of mythic status. I don’t for a moment believe that Dillinger did not know what he was doing with that machine gun. He had to realize that he was not only robbing banks, but that he was also projecting the image of himself in the news the same way that movie stars were projecting the images of themselves in films. And, I also believe that Billie realized what was happening and desperately desired to be part of that larger drama. And, if she did not ever actually own a machine gun while she was with Dillinger, I am pretty sure she damned well dreamed of it. And, those kinds of dreams almost always include Death as the bargaining agent.
I’m looking at a snapshot of a man in a dark suit bending over the body of someone he has just killed. He is holding a Thompson over the corpse as though it is some kind of magic stick. It almost looks like a kind of ritual. As though that machine gun is being held there so that it can get a good look at what it has murdered. The man in the dark suit and stetson hat is staring at the back of the man’s head which has been partly blown away. I’m wondering if he is trying to see inside the man’s head, trying to discover the answer to the riddle of death itself. I am also wondering if the man with the machine gun might be shaking a little with the excitement of what he has just done. Shaking with the knowledge that his bullets have made the blood drain out of the dead man’s head onto the floor. And, maybe he is also thinking that the machine gun is also excited and is shaking, too. And, somehow the man and the machine gun and the dead man on the floor drowning in his own blood are forming some kind of dark american trinity. The same scorched trinity where Billie Frechette dreams of taking communion.