Continuing our series of Texas crime fiction writers on their home state, we next have a piece from Noir At The Bar cohort Jesse Sublett. In his piece Jesse looks at how Texas legend, history and violence shapes our state’s art and culture.
Jesse will be at tonight’s Noir at the Bar – this Thursday, May 12th, at our new home at Threadgills downtown. Jesse is joined by Con Lehane, Jordan Harper, and Les Edgerton. Each author’s latest title will be available for sale at the event. Readings begin at 7 PM. Booze, books, and bars – what’s not to love?
–Guest Post by Jesse Sublett
When I was researching 1960s Austin Gangsters, I visited many Texas landmarks that had been devastated by greed and avarice over the past several centuries. Gun-toting thugs, pimps, petty thieves, and wisecracking roughnecks were not the ones who devastated these places. The culprits were corporations, land barons, bankers, and other would-be empire builders.
Take the upper Panhandle town of Mobeetie, for example. Texian settlers came through in the early 1800s and began killing off the nomadic Plains tribes. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it proved more efficient to kill off the buffalo herds on which the Plains Indians were so dependent for their lifestyle and culture. During that time, also known as the Buffalo Wars, the town of Mobeetie became a thriving city, an economic crossroads. After the bison herds had been slaughtered, the land barons moved into the Panhandle and West Texas and ran cattle for a couple of decades. After beef industry took a steep dive in the late 1800s, the landowners subdivided and town-promoted. After Spindletop, there were oil boom towns. They erupted across the state like festering blisters, places as crazy, cash-drenched, and vice-ridden as any Wild West movie you can imagine. Most of those boom towns are gone now.
“After Spindletop, there were oil boom towns. They erupted across the state like festering blisters, places as crazy, cash-drenched, and vice-ridden as any Wild West movie you can imagine.”
Today Mobeetie (which is more or less the same as New Mobeetie, just around the bend… long story…) is a stark, lonely little outpost of 200 or so people. Not much to look at and far less to do there. The population is unchanged since the Overton Gang came through in the spring of 1966 on a bank-burglary spree. Around one a.m. on the night of March 17, gunfire interrupted (the deputy shot out the tires of their getaway Cadillac parked on the road to the dump) the work of quintet of characters at the First State Bank and they scattered across the snow-dusted plains in all four directions. The ensuing fugitive manhunt for them encompassed thousands of square of miles of the shockingly empty landscape. Hundreds pitched in: deputies, rangers, G-men, and volunteers. They spread out on foot, in cars, on horseback, in airplanes, in helicopters, trailing bloodhounds. By the end of the week, all five were in jail.
It’s an empty landed crowded with myth: Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Quanah Parker, Pat Garrett… all had been through here, rocking and rolling. There’s something about such a place like that makes a crime writer turn philosophical. As I stood in the middle of main street New Mobeetie in the middle of the day, looking out on the knife-edge horizon, no cars or any humans anywhere in sight, my first thought was this a simple one: Out there is a whole lot of nowhere to run.
The story of Timmy Overton, football hero, Golden Gloves boxer, and Austin gang leader hooked my attention back in 2001 when I was researching something entirely different. It wasn’t just the Timmy Overton Gang and the 1960s subculture of vice and crime but his personal story that fascinated me. He was born into a rough family with four other brothers and grew up in the rough and tumble working class neighborhood called the Seventh Ward, or East First (now a hipster haven of trendy espresso bars, clubs, cafes and yoga gyms). He was smart, athletic and driven, and when he graduated in 1958, he was given a football scholarship by the University of Texas saint of the pigskin, Darrell Royal.
“As I stood in the middle of main street New Mobeetie in the middle of the day, looking out on the knife-edge horizon, no cars or any humans anywhere in sight, my first thought was this a simple one: Out there is a whole lot of nowhere to run.”
Things didn’t work out between Overton and Royal, however, and the same year the Longhorns played the Cotton Bowl, Timmy was twice convicted in burglary and forgery schemes and would finish his higher education at Huntsville. Within two years, Timmy was a noted underworld character, gambling and pimping and cruising the interstates with a platoon of other Cadillac driving bros, burglarizing small-town banks late at night and running a small empire of vice and crime based in Austin.
I found it amusing. Football players are programmed to be rough and brutal, to run over anything between them and a score. Once they step over some narrow line or run afoul of one of their appointed handlers, it’s back to the ghetto. Between high school and college, some fatal quirk was triggered in Timmy’s inner world. I gathered plenty of evidence to have opinions about the nature of that quirk, but along the way I also learned humility and empathy.
“But often the law and the justice system was almost as crooked as the criminals they sought to control, and if not for corrupt officials and willing civilians, the nexus of vice and crime would never have existed at all.”
I felt empathy despite the many terrible deeds committed by Timmy and his pals. They hurt many people. They were part of a network of bootleggers, casino owners, thieves, murderers, crooked lawmen, and others throughout the South and Southwest that came to be known as the Dixie Mafia. But often the law and the justice system was almost as crooked as the criminals they sought to control, and if not for corrupt officials and willing civilians, the nexus of vice and crime would never have existed at all.
I talked to lawmen, ex-cons, ex-pimps and gamblers, and dozens of former classmates of Timmy Overton. Looking back on their youth and in particular, their high school days, members of the class of ’58 had a fascinating perspective. With tough guys like Timmy and his childhood friends on the line and the backfield, the Maroons football team had come within an inch of winning the state championship. There was a real sense of pride, respect, and humility as they considered those years. When they met for their ten year class reunion in 1968, Timmy was famously absent, as twenty members of the Overton Gang were on trial in El Paso on a massive federal conspiracy indictment.
When they told me about Timmy and other classmates who had ended up in prison or murdered, they spoke not with judgment and a tragic sense of loss, but fondness and respect. They were all friends and cohorts in the grand adventure of life.
This impressed me a lot.
“I’m sure there are fans of film noir and crime fiction who look at the world as a place of right or wrong, black and white. No shades of gray. No moral ambiguity. No dead end alleys where every choice leads to disaster. I suppose that simple, streamlined map of the moral universe is a comfort to them. But it sounds really boring to me.”
I’m sure there are fans of film noir and crime fiction who look at the world as a place of right or wrong, black and white. No shades of gray. No moral ambiguity. No dead end alleys where every choice leads to disaster. I suppose that simple, streamlined map of the moral universe is a comfort to them. But it sounds really boring to me. When those other people watch a film noir or follow the footsteps of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, or Harry Bosch, maybe they came for the biggie sized buckets of popcorn and corn syrup drinks, but myself, I like a little moral ambiguity and mystery.
Come by Threadgill’s off Riverside tonight, Thursday, May 12th, starting at 7 PM for readings from your favorite authors accompanied by your favorite drinks. You can find copies of Jesse’s latest, 1960s Austin Gangsters, on our shelves, at Noir at the Bar, or via bookpeople.com. You can additionally find Jesse’s latest album on our shelves.