Aug 10 2017 1:00pm

Tracking the American Bandito

Americans love Robin Hood stories but have produced few of their own.

The thief is among the most charismatic protagonists in American popular culture. From frontier outlaws like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy to Depression-era figures like Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger and contemporary figures as diverse as D. B. Cooper, Frank “Catch Me If You Can” Abagnale, and the Bling Ring, many real-life American thieves become folkloric antiheroes, their actual exploits and motivations embellished to fit a more likable narrative. Our fictions are full of charming masters of the heist, modern descendants of the noble burglar like Danny Ocean and Catwoman, the heroes of movies as diverse as The Thomas Crown Affair, Dog Day Afternoon, Three Kings, the Michael Mann masterpieces Thief and Heat, and even computer capers like Hackers and Swordfish. But unlike the outlaw heroes of many other cultures, American popular thieves rarely exhibit any overt politics.

Throughout the world, there are stories of common criminals who, through their crimes, become viewed as figures of social justice, champions of the downtrodden. Consider Pancho Villa, Scotland’s Rob Roy, England’s Dick Turpin, Brazil’s Lampião, Hungary’s Sandor Rózsa, Australia’s Ned Kelly, the Haiduks of the Balkans, contemporary Indian outlaws like Veerappan, and even (depending who you ask) narcos like Pablo Escobar and El Chapo.

The late English historian Eric Hobsbawm studied the phenomenon in his 1969 book Bandits, identifying a trajectory that recurs across cultures and eras whereby the common thief (prototypically a rural outlaw) evolves into a “social bandit” and sometimes revolutionary. But while Hobsbawm cites more than a hundred historical examples, there are only a handful of Americans, none of whom really fit the thesis.

In America, thieves don’t have to share the loot with the people of their community to be loved. The social bandits of other cultures usually come from rural regions where the ownership of land is highly concentrated—not far removed from feudalism—and the path to justice becomes not just stealing from the rich but attacking the whole property system.

In the US, we may have an unequal distribution of wealth, but it’s not so much based on how the land was originally distributed. The American countryside is (or was) built on the egalitarian foundation of the family farm, and the rural outlaws we do have mostly come from the range wars of the Southwest—like the one that produced Billy the Kid or from the wars to take native lands that produced figures like Geronimo.

Our contemporary hero thieves more commonly attack urban wealth, the fortunes generated by industry and finance, the money hoarded by bankers. Danny Ocean is a good guy because the casino game is rigged, metaphorically reflecting our recognition that the urban capitalism game is too. American heist movies are really business movies, stories that know that no matter how much the teachers, preachers, and politicians may tell us how wealth comes from hard work and playing by the rules, the truth is the one Balzac and Michael Corleone both knew: behind every great fortune is a great crime (or at least some serious cheating).

There are social bandits in American popular culture, but they usually hide in the corners of genre fiction. You can find them in the adventure and fantasy pulps, from sword & sorcery archetypes like Robert E. Howard’s Conan—a frontier drifter in loincloth drag who starts out as a common thief and goes on over the course of a long career to lead a revolution that deposes the corrupt king—to the American soldiers who become mercenaries and then use their skills to liberate oppressed peoples in faraway lands, like The Magnificent Seven, Lee Marvin’s gang in The Professionals, and Stallone’s burned-out Burma river paladin in the 2008 version of Rambo. Even Cormac McCarthy’s dark masterpiece Blood Meridian is a species of this, a story of violently marauding 19th-century filibusters with the mythological embellishment scraped off. But by situating the American social bandits in other countries, or imagined ones, these stories evade any authentically political bite. We may be raised on the story of our own revolution, but we like it to keep its powdered wigs on.

In my new novel Tropic of Kansas, I decided to take Hobsbawm’s archetype—thief becomes social bandit then revolutionary—and make an authentically American version. I created a character who shared the DNA of many of the aforementioned rogues, a country boy who embodies the backwoods and then walks into the America made by people who live in cities. I coupled him with another American type—the cop turned narc, a whistleblower woman with traces of Serpico, Snowden, Angela Davis, and even Patty Hearst.

To make their trajectory work, I needed to make the America they inhabit more unjust than the one we live in, a dystopia that draws from the material of real life. I found that the incorporation of politics into the tale of an American thief gives the story a different turbocharge than the lottery dreams of the heist—a payoff that is more authentically liberatory. It’s good to ask why we love our crooks and to imagine different kinds of American outlaws—ones who steal freedom instead of treasure from those who hoard it. 


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Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas, a novel now available from Harper Voyager.

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