Heroes don’t come more picaresque than J. Willis Newton, the gun-totin’, bank-bustin’ mouthpiece of this rich and roisterin’ entertainment.
“A biographical novel” is the label given by the father and daughter writing team, and it’s certainly true that the wily outlaw and his rapscallion brothers did live and breathe and did blow safes all over Texas and Oklahoma in the early years of the last century, collecting enough, Willis always enjoyed bragging, “to make that Jesse James gang look like pickpockets.” Clearly, however, novel transcends biography, since here it’s Willis’s voice that will stay with you. It’s a southwestern voice, a cowboy voice, speaking in the kind of colorful vernacular that camouflages wisdom with wit and pithiness. At the outset of his saga, Willis lets us know that he’s 88 and unrepentant. “Lots of people that know me say I shoulda been buried up on Boot Hill 50 or 60 years ago . . . Well, I say let ’em think whatever the hell they want to.” He was born on a West Texas cotton patch, and his formative years were all hardscrabble, defined by “pickin’ ”: from “can-see to can’t,” back-breaking and sweat-drenching work, fingers raw and bleeding from those inescapable cotton burrs. At 16, having had enough, Willis became a traveling man, and when he hooks up with Frank Holloway, career bank-robber, the direction of his life is set in stone. But if Willis is to be an outlaw, he’s bound and determined to be first-rate. Invitations are issued to Dock, Jess, and Joe, his brothers, and the Newton Boys take shape as the prototype for fast-striking, thieving efficiency. Willis makes headlines, gets rich, enjoys the good life. Is it inevitable, then, that he will one day overstep himself?
Melding seamlessly, the Stanushes debut deliciously here with a combination Tom Jones and Billy the Kid, whose softer sides most readers will regard as redeeming.