During the first two decades of the 20th century, a young pickpocket sets out across America on a journey that doesn’t take the reader very far.
In his first fiction, British director Parker (the films Midnight Express and The Commitments) follows Thomas Moran, a wily, ingratiating lad from San Francisco whose earthy observations sometimes amuse but too often suggest late-night college bull sessions. Twice in the first chapter, Moran observes that “nothing’s free in America”—how true, how true. An obstreperous youth, Moran flees a Catholic correctional home, leaving his mother and two sisters behind as he becomes a vagabond pickpocket—and why not? As Moran says, “The mudsnoots on Wall Street, like me, had their hands in everyone’s pockets.” The first half of Parker’s smoothly written, lightly amusing narrative offers some effective, picaresque moments, as when the crowd at a circus lynches the elephant that trampled a spectator. But less than trenchant are other episodes, prefaced in the style of Dos Passos with brief accounts of national events linked superficially to what follows. From a report detailing the successful integration of escaped mental patients into society, Moran concludes, “Who’s to know who’s crazy?” The second half is rather uninspired in plot, and in form seems awkwardly joined to the episodic first half. Moran returns to California and enters in a romantic relationship with Effie, a grape grower’s daughter. As Prohibition hurts profits, since demand for grapes is low, Moran tries to help the vineyard owner. The effort entangles Moran with the Italian mob, the Chinese mob, and the Catholic Church mob. Dealing with the latter, Moran confronts something he—and the reader—suspected all along about Effie. More disillusioned than ever, a melancholy Moran heads back on the road.
As journey novels go, this one is pretty much a Cook’s tour of early-20th-century America.