Bonnie and Clyde is a very frank and vivid account of the Depression Era's most notorious couple. Its beautiful, magical prose clearly evokes the desperation felt the world over following the economy's collapse, a time that saw "bankers leaping from the tenth story to go splat against pavements, once-proud men standing in lines for a bowl of soup, women with their hopes crushed inside their defunct dreams." Into this inglorious social shambles step two larger than life characters on an unstoppable course to meet their chosen destiny.
Bonnie Parker is just your average small-town girl, pretty and petite with strawberry blonde hair. She waitresses at a dead end job, toiling long tedious hours on her feet and living with her devoted mother. She dreams of leaving for California to become an actress, aware that she has the ability to attract men like flies on manure. Although she married young, after her husband went to jail she didn't have the heart to divorce him. This, however, doesn't stop her from flirting with customers, until restlessness and frustration get the better of her and adultery becomes her main form of release. She also dabbles with writing, mainly in the form of sensationalist poetry that reflects how she would like her life to be. As the novel describes it, "Sometimes the sameness of the days are so painful they feel like hammer blows to her skull."
Clyde Barrow shows up one day and holds a magnetic attraction for her, after all, bad boys are her favorite things. He infects her with a profound dissatisfaction with her life, a restlessness to escape her dull existence. She doesn't want to see the reality that Clyde is just a no-good hoodlum who will bring about their ruin, and if she does, she is unwilling to let it stop her doing what she wants, an ability that presages a turbulent future. After a brief dalliance Clyde is sent to jail for a prison sentence, during which time Bonnie herself is incarcerated for smuggling him a gun, which he uses to escape, although he is later returned to jail to serve his sentence.
Both vow that they will never again suffer as they have done inside. For Bonnie, this meant not only sharing a cell with a madwoman who cuddles up to her at night, but also the shame of having her mother coming to bail her out with the grocery money. Clyde's incarceration, however, takes a distinctly darker turn, involving the sort of abuse you might imagine men suffer in prison, and self-mutilation.
Clyde Barrow turned to a life of crime under the influence of his older brother Buck, also incarcerated in the same Texas jail, and by a childhood of extreme poverty and depravation. He simply knows no other way, and he and his brother's criminality is accepted by other family members to an astonishing degree. Clyde is a desperate man after his jail stint. Thin, poor and reduced to the level of an animal, it is in this frame of mind that he and Bonnie are reunited after their brief affair. Though her letters to him grew infrequent with the passing of the two years, he has never failed to write to her. It doesn't even matter to him that she is seeing someone else when he knocks once more on her door. He simply ignores the man and tells her to pack her bags. Bonnie seems at this point to be standing on the borderline of good and evil.
On one side there is thrilling, exciting Clyde, though she is already aware that teaming up with him will likely result in her death. On the other side is Glen, the good guy who has a good job, adores her, attends to her every need and will never result in a life of looking over her shoulder. To her there is not much of a choice. She decides Clyde and she are meant to be. They are reunited with a powerfully drawn kiss: "It is like the tip of a knife pressed to her heart: cold and thrilling at the same time."
Bonnie is under no illusions when Clyde returns and the author loses no opportunity to hammer home the point that they are unable or unwilling to fight their destiny, from the first moment they lay eyes on each other, to their ignominious end. He also makes sure to describe their crimes as more or less accidental. The media get hold of their identities as they tour around in their Ford V-8, robbing gas stations and ordinary stores. Though Clyde is always angling for the big bank heist, to set him up for life and provide for Bonnie, it never comes off. Gradually the violence involved in their crimes escalates as the police get closer on their tails, the implication being that they are somehow not entirely responsible.
In this way I felt the book did not live up to its promise. Billed as a love story, it follows two young, stupid and reckless criminals who, until the very end, maintain that they dislike killing people and express the futile hope that there is a chance they will have an ordinary future, despite their crimes. Even their so-called irresistible love is hopelessly flawed - Bonnie cheats on Clyde who is a non-starter in the bedroom, due to his anxiety over his prison torture. Clyde seems to be mainly possessive and territorial over the pixie-like and naïve Bonnie rather than a man in love.
In fact their romance seems mostly to be in Bonnie's head and their story is really the antithesis of romantic love as we know and strive for it. It depicts the dark side of infatuation, where a person will do anything, be anything to please their partner and is so blind to the consequences that even their very lives are at risk. This is really an allegorical tale of warning to young women who put all their trust in bad boys. Their crimes may not be glorified in the book, but their love is, and in this way I felt it did not achieve its aim. They never manage to transcend the darker side of their attraction that eventually pulls them toward a tragic end.
The manner in which the author weaves the story provides no hard facts or dates to back up the implication that they are victims of fate. This is not the type of biography that relates dry fact and revels in cold hard history. Its strength is not in its relation to the actuality of Bonnie and Clyde - there is no bibliography, no author's note, and only vague references to dates and times. Still this is a gripping and lucid account that draws you into the protagonist's minds, setting the reader amidst the gritty, harsh reality of 1930's America. It is a rich and compelling book that focuses on the real relevance of Bonnie and Clyde's story - their fatal attraction.
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