We love stories about criminal masterminds, real or invented. Hannibal Lecter, Al Capone, Jordan Belfort, Walter White — their stories appeal to our fantasies of total control and our secret dreams of hedonistic, antisocial abandon.
But another kind of criminal, underrepresented on "CSI" shows, tends to pop up more often on real-life police blotters. It's this breed of miscreant — defined by a woeful lack of control of circumstances — to whom Greg Bottoms devotes his new book, a hybrid of memoir, fiction and reportage.
In Pitiful Criminals, the University of Vermont English professor suggests that often our worst impulses are also our sloppiest. Bottoms writes:
Criminals are almost never masterminds, and more often than not they are impulsive and profoundly stupid. The most obvious culprit is usually the culprit. There is evil in the world, and I mean a force that can and does run easily through all of us, but I think what is more dangerous is how we have widespread social circumstances, a breeding ground if you will, that create a system of values that is inhuman, cold, and predicated on a disregard for life, which can become a fast conduit for what is worst in us.
Who arises from this "breeding ground" of crime? Bottoms' version of a rogues' gallery includes a handyman who rapes and murders a woman in a "fit of horrible impulse and rage" that later seems to him like a dream. A crackhead who holds up a 7-Eleven with a steak knife. A blue-blood college kid who starts dealing weed, develops delusions of gangsta grandeur and flaunts his bling to the wrong pizza delivery boy. Based on real people — but unnamed, their stories embroidered by poetic license — these "pitiful criminals" live up to Bottoms' descriptor. Their crime-world aspirations (if they have any) are ill-fated. Their stories are sordid, devoid of uplift and short.
These are the stories Bottoms has chosen to tell, aided by Underhill artist W. David Powell's unblinking, cinematic drawings. Stripped to the bare facts, the chapters of Pitiful Criminals might have been simply lurid, true-crime tales — bloody wrecks from which we couldn't look away. While Bottoms rooted them in true cases — many of which touched him personally — he has used the writer's toolbox to craft what he calls "fictionalized re-creations."
The result is absorbing, and not in a "Dateline NBC" way. Where a TV producer might fill gaps in the factual record by hyping the gory details, Bottoms aims to find the broader human tragedy in each case — whether of perpetrator, witness, victim or all three.
And he knows of what he speaks. Bottoms began his publication history in 2000 with the acclaimed Angelhead: My Brother's Descent Into Madness. That's a memoir of his schizophrenic older brother, who's been in a prison psychiatric facility since he set fire to the family home in 1992, claiming to be ridding it of "mystical and nefarious" forces.
In 2008, Bottoms relates at the beginning of Pitiful Criminals, he received "A Message From Prison." His brother wanted to renew contact with the family. That message prompts a personal meditation — resurfacing throughout the book — on what it means to be "fucked up" by a history and environment of violence.
Bottoms has written frequently in the past about his working-class Virginia origins and the people he left behind. In "A Couple of Ways to Kill Yourself," previously published in his collection Swallowing the Past: Scenes From the Postmodern South, he describes the bizarre experience of returning to a city where a one-time friend learns of his career up north and asks derisively, "And what would they let you be a professor of?"
Now the author looks back on his literary career and sees in it a sustained effort to understand and change the world that couldn't prevent his brother's crimes. Institutions had failed his family, treatment for mental illness being expensive and elusive. As a younger writer, Bottoms writes in Pitiful Criminals, "I hoped that maybe a high level of prose craft could wield some power on behalf of consciousness-raising, activism and progress."
Does he still feel that way? Pitiful Criminals is a dark book, an unsparing view of human nature leavened mainly by mordant comedy. Many of the protagonists doom themselves not just through evil impulses but through stupidity and chemical impairment. It's hard not to laugh at the story of the "Easy Roller," a cannabis grower who attracts the cops' notice by breaking into his own house in a fit of weed-induced paranoia.
But Bottoms laces his satire of human folly with a deeper critique of the social conditions that foster it. A rapist-murderer comes from a notoriously abusive family; a high school girl was bullied before she picked up her dad's gun and shot a classmate — circumstances the author uses not to mitigate their crimes but to force us to see each act of bloodshed in a broader context.
Bottoms occasionally strikes off-notes when he switches from storytelling to theorizing. In a story about his own "crime" of throwing a sixth-grade spelling bee, for instance, he describes himself and his school friends as having "mixed-up little media minds" — a formulation that borders on the preachy.
Most of the time, though, this author is more about showing than telling, and his terse prose is powerful. "He wasn't just white," Bottoms writes of the affluent kid who tried to play gangster, "he was like the history of Southern whiteness in an Atlanta Braves hat." When the author delves deep beneath the skin of his "characters" — such as a man who experiences the grotesque misfortune of discovering two corpses close to his home, decades apart (see sidebar) — his stories are as mesmerizing as they are unsettling.
Does Bottoms himself cross an ethical line when he "fictionally re-creates" the thought processes and motives of people who are, after all, real? No more than a true-crime writer or tabloid TV producer — but with more poetry, and a lot more self-consciousness. "Past tense is always a kind of fiction," he suggests — even when we're describing our own experiences. Still, Bottoms acknowledges that, to the family of a murdered child whose story he hopes to tell, his interest may seem no different from that of another reporter looking for a sensationalist headline.
Faced with such inquiries, people whose lives have been deformed by violent crime may see their salvation not in storytelling but in silence. Silence is how Bottoms himself answered the message from his incarcerated brother. "I cut him loose to survive," he tells us early on, conceding that creative altruism has its limits.
Yet he keeps on telling these stories that humanize horror without minimizing it, capturing the potential for pitiful transgressions in all of us. Entertaining as these tales are, they cut to the bone.