Well, as it turns out I’ll have a little time I didn’t expect tonight, after all. Let’s see if I can get this review composed and posted (composted?) before time’s winged chariot o’ertakes me, leaving tread marks on my back.
I think you’ll either love or hate Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. I almost put it down a few pages in, because the story promised the murders of a whole lot of innocent bystanders before it was done, and I don’t have much stomach for that sort of thing anymore.
But Hunter surprised me. The story wasn’t what I expected, and I found it both compelling and complex.
A lot of people in our culture, I think, misunderstand what moral ambiguity in fiction means.
Sam Spade, for instance, in The Maltese Falcon, is a morally ambiguous character. He has major moral failings, especially in that he’s having an affair with his partner’s wife. But when that partner is killed, Sam knows his duty. He has to find the killer and turn them over to the police—even though it turns out to be someone he cares about. He’s not perfect, but he knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and he does his best to choose right.
That’s moral ambiguity.
Or there are situations where everything is so convoluted that one good has to be balanced against another good, or one evil against another. Sophie’s horrible Choice in that novel is an example of such a tragic moral ambiguity.
That’s another kind.
But modern writers aren’t usually willing to wrestle with moral ambiguity that way. They take the easy way out, flippantly declaring that there is no right and wrong, and that everyone’s choices are right for them. For all the theatrics of their characters, nobody really thinks anything important is at stake.
That’s not moral ambiguity. That’s moral nihilism.
Stephen Hunter presents here a classic exercise in real moral ambiguity. It’s a tour de force, in my opinion, with echoes of Greek tragedy.
Oklahoma Highway Trooper Bud Pewtie is Hunter’s tragic hero, the good man with the fatal flaw. He’s a little like Sam Spade, but he has more guilt. A family man with two teenage sons, he wants to be a good father and a good example. But he’s betraying his family, carrying on an affair with a younger woman. In yet another betrayal, the younger woman is the wife of his partner. Bud inhabits that moral no-man’s-land we all know so well, where you can’t make up your mind to end the thing, but can’t make up your mind to make a break the other way either. So you take the path of least resistance and hope things will work out somehow.
The antagonist in the book is Lamar Pye, a sort of mythic figure—the baddest white man in McAlester State Penitentiary. He is big and strong and fearless and smart, and when he breaks out of prison along with two other prisoners (murdering two innocent people along the way) he looks forward to blazing a path of robbery and death across the state.
And yet… in his own way, Lamar is a better man than Bud Pewtie. Because, as someone mentions, he knows how to be “true to his own kind.” “His own kind” being the people close to him, the ones he considers his family.
First of all there’s his cousin Odell. Odell is a huge, powerful man with a cleft palate and the mind of a small child. Essentially sweet by nature, he’d never have hurt anyone if he hadn’t been abused by his father (Lamar killed the father) and then become attached to a criminal.
Then there’s Richard, the other escaped prisoner. Richard is an artist, a soft and sensitive type who would have been easy meat for any rapist in the prison if he hadn’t drawn a picture of a lion that Lamar liked. Lamar became his protector then, leaving him no choice but to escape when Lamar escaped.
Later on there’s Ruta Beth, a not-quite-sane farm girl with a dark secret who hides the gang and becomes Lamar’s lover. She calls them all “the family” (Odell is “the baby”).
And Lamar surprises us. After the first two needless murders, he spares the lives of a couple people whom it would be safer for him to kill. We see him caring for his perverse little family in self-sacrificial ways, and we realize that under different circumstances he could have been a great man.
But he keeps running afoul of Bud Pewtie, and somehow he can’t manage to kill Bud. Bud becomes his obsession, his target, and that leads to a final showdown between two extremely complex, morally ambiguous men.
But for all the ambiguity, Hunter never forgets which side is the right side.
Aristotle said (if I remember correctly) that tragedy should rouse “pity and terror.”
There’s plenty of that in Dirty White Boys.
Cautions for offensive language, sex and violence. Not for the fainthearted. But an outstanding moral narrative, for my money.