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Reviews of two books about Bonnie and Clyde: 'Go Down Together' by Jeff Guinn, and 'Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend' by Paul Schneider

Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker made two astute career moves. The first was getting ambushed on a Louisiana back road on May 23, 1934, by a posse of Texas and Louisiana lawmen. Bonnie and Clyde's spectacular deaths made them household names in places where their bank and gas station holdups — for the most part, penny ante stuff — weren't considered big news like the crimes of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd.

The second was having Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway play them in Bonnie and Clyde, a hugely influential 1967 film.

They were lucky. Without their violent demise and Arthur Penn's film, it's doubtful their fame would have lasted long enough to inspire two fine books on the 75th anniversary of their death: Jeff Guinn's Go Down Together and Paul Schneider's Bonnie and Clyde.

Guinn, a Texas journalist, has researched their lives and times with the thoroughness generally reserved for politicians and captains of industry. Barrow, "short and scrawny," and Parker, "a cute little old girl" and borderline alcoholic, met in the Depression campground of West Dallas, known to respectable residents as "the Devil's back porch."

Clyde was a petty criminal — his first offense may have been poultry theft at age 16 — before serving a stint in the Eastham Prison Farm, where he was raped by a prisoner and took his revenge by clubbing the man to death.

The diminutive Bonnie (4 feet 11 and perhaps 90 pounds) was out of work when she met Clyde and fell immediately in love. For more than four years she rode with him through nearly a dozen states, sleeping in dingy motor courts in good times and in the backseats of stolen cars in bad.

Both had a literary bent: Bonnie wrote poetry while Clyde wrote letters to Henry Ford praising his cars (". . . even if my business hasn't been stricly [sic] legal, it don't hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8").

They saw themselves as following in the tradition of legendary Western outlaws. After their deaths, a copy of Walter Noble Burns' The Saga of Billy the Kid was found in their bullet-riddled car. They would have been tickled to know that their car, guns and blood-stained clothing became sought-after memorabilia.

Go Down Together is a dual biography, while Paul Schneider's Bonnie and Clyde is a nonfiction novel in the style of Capote's In Cold Blood. (Everything, including dialogue, has a direct source identified in endnotes.) The technique sometimes results in a book a tad more literary than either Bonnie or Clyde deserves.

At the final ambush, Schneider projects himself into Clyde's mind: "Maybe you hear the first bullet fired, or the first ten, even. Or twenty . . . The other hundred and however many bullets, they're just an echo of something you remember."

The novelistic technique, though, does let his book go places a straight biography cannot. Shortly before their deaths, the weary outlaws fantasize about a peaceful life. "Things are going to be good," Clyde and Bonnie tell their parents. "There will be fishing and swimming. Relaxing. Clyde's even got himself a saxophone again. A person can play Melancholy Baby all night long out in those woods and no one will ever hear it." Both of them, of course, know that Clyde will never have time to learn to play that saxophone.

Guinn's Go Down Together tells you the story from the outside, while Schneider's Bonnie and Clyde presents the story the way it might have been from the inside. Both leave you feeling like you just dodged a bullet.

Allen Barra's latest book is "Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee."

Go Down Together:
The True, Untold Story
of Bonnie and Clyde

By Jeff Guinn

Simon & Schuster, 480 pages, $27

Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend

By Paul Schneider

Henry Holt, 320 pages, $25

Reviews of two books about Bonnie and Clyde: 'Go Down Together' by Jeff Guinn, and 'Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend' by Paul Schneider 05/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 2:22pm]
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