A few days ago I was sitting in one of the darkened booths at a local coffee house reading Elliott J. Gorn’s new book DILLINGER’S WILD RIDE when a member of the wait staff strolled by clearing tables. When he saw the book cover, he stopped and said, I see you are a Dillinger buff. Did you know about the new movie called PUBLIC ENEMIES. It has Johnny Depp in it as Dillinger. I mumbled something in hopes he wouldn’t linger but, if anything, he was persistent. He noticed the Kangaroo Court copy of THE NAME IS DILLINGER sitting next to my well worn copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN and said, I’ve heard of Todd Moore. Have you ever met him, do you know anything about him? I let the question hang in the air like a dead crow for a couple of seconds and said, I have no idea who he is.
I’m doing target practice with a kid called Waggs. We are using his 22 Woodsman. It feels good in the hand and all you get is a light pop when you fire it. The targets are beer bottles and soup cans. But after awhile it starts to get boring and Waggs says I know what we can use and goes to the trunk of his car where he pulls a sawed off shotgun out of a tangle of women’s panties and fast food garbage. Waddya think and before I can answer he breaks it open and shoves a cartridge in. Twelve gauge double ought buck he says. It’s only a one banger, but I love it. Then he whirls around and fires a load into an old barn door propped against a tree. See the holes it makes, man. Dillinger couldn’t have done any better.
I was well into writing DILLINGER when I realized that just the name all by itself had morphed into some kind of magical spell. It possessed a mojo all of its own. Talk to anyone from the midwest about Dillinger, especially any of the old timers who were around at the time and suddenly you find yourself entering the country of storytellers, amiable liars, tricksters, and mythmakers. Dillinger wasn’t just an outlaw. He had a little something extra. Call it quality, strut, charisma.
Kidder had buck teeth and maybe the best right arm I ever saw. We’d stand on the railroad bridge above the Pecatonica River and see who could throw a stone the farthest. He always won, sidearm or overhand. Afterward, we’d go underneath the bridge and drink the beer he stole out of his old man’s fridge and he’d tell me stories about how his old man used to run a white lightning speak back in the twenties and thirties and that sometimes Dillinger would drop by to make a connection or maybe pick up a couple of under the counter guns. After the feds made things hot for him, Dillinger stopped coming around and Kidder said his old man missed that because Dillinger always had good jokes to tell.
When I look at the Johnny Depp trailers for PUBLIC ENEMIES, I know I am watching at least two things at the same time. First, I’m watching pure promo because I realize that the people who created this film are hoping to make money, lots of money. I also know that I am looking at something like an action painting by Michael Mann. Mann is the kind of film maker who is going to give me possibly the purest filmic essence of what a contemporary outlaw in america really is. And, when I think of Mann, I think of HEAT because that, for me, is his masterpiece up until now. And, when I think of HEAT, I think of that bankjob gunfight about three quarters of the way through the film. It’s not quite as spectacular as Peckinpah’s gun battles in THE WILD BUNCH but it does come very close. I think of Mann’s signature cinematic style for action but I also think of something else. I think of the classic tension he got between Pacino and De Niro. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Especially that truce scene in the diner where De Niro and Pacino just sit there talking, but there is so much powerful restraint in that scene it reminds me of those classic scenes in THE GODFATHER where the talk is all done quietly but you know there is going to be some serious shit going down as a result. The essence of the Mann style is all the tense homicidal talking. Just that hint of murderous noir.
Note: You can swith off the advertisement while watching this trailer.
And now, somehow everything Dillinger is all coming together in 2009. I haven’t known a year quite like this since 1976. Which is when I wrote The Name Is Dillinger and everything I had ever thought about poetry changed forever then. There have also been a few other years. 1986 when Kangaroo Court started to bring out those sleek, glitzy red volumes of DILLINGER. The year 2000 when Lummox Press brought out The Corpse Is Dreaming. And, 2005 when St. Vitus Press published The Dead Zone Trilogy. All of those times have been mysteriously complex years for me. Moments when something happened but I wasn’t sure what.
However, the year 2009 is becoming possibly the most interesting Dillinger convergence in history and in the culture that I have ever seen. In February, 2009, Lummox Press brought out The Riddle of the Wooden Gun. At one hundred and forty two pages, it is one of the most ambitious sections of DILLINGER I have worked on to date. Along with The Name Is Dillinger, The Sign of the Gun, Dillinger’s Thompson, and The Corpse Is Dreaming, Riddle is one of the keys to Dillinger both as a metaphor and Dillinger as a man. And, DILLINGER, the poem has become THE archetypal long poem about an america that has been shoved down into the cellar id where all the social outlaws and outlaw poets have been locked away from the polite world.
In early June Elliott J. Gorn’s book DILLINGER’S WILD RIDE appeared. A friend called me one day shortly after RIDE came out and informed me that he had seen the book advertised in an Oxford University Press spread in The New York Review of Books. So, the first thing I did that morning was head down to the local Barnes and Noble. I really didn’t expect them to have a copy since the book was officially scheduled for release in early July. But, the clerk surprised me when she said I’ve seen that book on the shelf and took me right to it. I was further surprised to find my name in the index. That’s when I realized that this wasn’t going to be any pedestrian bio/historical rehash of Dillinger. Rather, from a cursory thumb through I realized that this is Gorn’s cultural overview of Dillinger’s life and times. In a way, DILLINGER’S WILD RIDE reminds me of Stephen Tatum’s book INVENTING BILLY THE KID, wherein Tatum tracks the shadowy figure of the Kid through history, novels, films, poetry, as well as many other cultural myths, anecdotes, and various regional fictions.
The third Dillinger convergence is the film PUBLIC ENEMIES. From the few advance reviews that I’ve read, I would be willing to wager that Mann is placing big bets on this movie. If HEAT is a past masterpiece, then PUBLIC ENEMIES is certainly intended to become a current one as well. My first reaction to Johnny Depp as Dillinger is that Depp is too handsome for the role. Dillinger had a kind of roughneck look. Bogart would have been perfect for the part had he been alive and much younger. Warren Oates, who played Dillinger in the Milius film, came close to that look. To compensate for that, Depp seems to be playing Dillinger from the inside out. It’s the Dillinger look gleaned from the Tucson jail footage, the Dillinger look from the Crown Point snapshots. It’s subdued Dillinger. It’s existential Dillinger. It’s New Wave Dillinger. And, I am very sure that Depp sees this as his shot at something as outlaw iconic as Brando or Pacino in THE GODFATHER, Cagney in WHITE HEAT, Bogart in HIGH SIERRA. PUBLIC ENEMIES comes with that built in magical Dillinger look and I think Johnny Depp moved in and has lived there awhile. You can’t buy something like that at any price. It just has to be there and available.
But, it’s the phenomenon of the convergence that interests me more than anything else. It’s this high voltage cluster of multiple Dillingers all appearing at the same time that is both exhilarating and mythical and mysterious. Personally, I have been working on the long poem DILLINGER for more than thirty years. And, when I say I have been working on DILLINGER, what I really mean is that I have been exploring the life, the blood, the legend, the soul of this man as well as his complex mythology which means that I have also been exploring the dark outlaw soul of america as well.
I can’t speak for Elliott Gorn or for Michael Mann, but I would be willing to hazard a guess that both men have been more than just intrigued by Dillinger. They very likely have been haunted by him as well. You can’t go into the Dillinger country without experiencing some kind of mojo, some kind of charisma, some kind of revved magic that takes you all over the psychic map.
So, the dead last thing that I would call myself is a Dillinger buff. I’ll reserve that tag for the gangster and civil war and outlaw reenactors. As for me, I’m not reenacting anything. I am playing it out. I am inventing John Dillinger just as much as Elliott Gorn is inventing him by attempting to salvage what facts of his life that actually apply and by accurately presenting Dillinger’s cultural milieu. And, I am trying to discover Dillinger’s darkness just as Michael Mann is trying to give us all the best live action portrait of Dillinger possible.
In a larger sense, The Riddle of the Wooden Gun, DILLINGER’S WILD RIDE, and PUBLIC ENEMIES are three ways of thinking about Dillinger and his world. You might condense them to just three questions. What is mythology? What is history? And, what is reality or in Michael Mann’s case, what is hyper reality when it comes to an outlaw? None of us may ever actually reach the central dream core of who John Dillinger was. But if we make it as far as Twain did with Huck Finn, or as far as McCarthy did with Judge Holden, or as far as Melville did with Captain Ahab, then maybe we’ve all contributed something to the ongoing mystery of John Dillinger and maybe also a little dark knowledge to the ongoing nightmare mythography of america as well. But, whatever we may have accomplished, we’ve discovered the three ways of dreaming the outlaw.
The Riddle of the Wooden Gun by Todd Moore | Lummox Press, 2009 – Dillinger’s Wild Ride by Elliott J. Gorn | Oxford University Press, 2009 – Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp | Michael Mann, Director | Release July 2009