THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
When I conceived Caitlin Strong, the female Texas Ranger who graces the pages of STRONG RAIN FALLING and four other books, I wanted to create a classic American hero from our country’s frontier heritage. I wanted to make her flawed and a bit ambiguous, but ultimately I know she’d always end up shooting straight and doing the right thing. To me great heroes are what make great books, particularly in the thriller genre. Good guys (and gals!) we can relate to and root for. In my mind that’s what it’s all about, in fact and fiction.
So why do we find ourselves so fascinated by dark heroes, anti-heroes and basically bad guys in both fiction and fact too. I started thinking about this right around the time I heard somewhere that Jahar Tsnarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bombing brother, has something like 180,000 followers and friends on some fan site. Then Rolling Stone magazine arrived in the mail with Jahar on the cover looking like a rock star because, well, maybe he is.
And he’s not alone.
“Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do, watcha gonna do when they come for you?”
When he wrote that, Bob Marley might well have been thinking of our society’s endless fascination with, and attraction to, bad guys. We turn them into folk heroes, pop culture icons. I was already thinking about this in the wake of the tragic passing of James Gandolfini. His portrayal of Tony Soprano is one for the ages and will be with us forever. Tony will be admired, envied, looked up to and even deified, in spite of the fact that he’s a brutal, two-timing, wife-cheating thug. Even before Rolling Stone turned Jahar Tsarnaev into a rock star, he had already become a virtual (literally and figuratively) fan fave of those tween girls who are no more discerning, and perhaps strangely even less so, than their adult counterparts. Our culture’s love of bad boys dates back to Jimmie Cagney movies advancing to Humphrey Bogart and, finally, the gangster era spawned by the Coreleone family in The Godfather, perhaps the greatest film ever made.
The problem is how we extend the mythology from fiction into fact, seeing real life bad boys as saintly robin hoods or tortured souls instead of the brutal and irredeemable punks they usually are, ugly to the core. Such a proclivity stems first from our almost inbred nature to worship the kind of power that mobsters possess. They write their own rules, never wait in line in restaurants, never have to worry about how they’re going to pay the bills, can have the crap kicked out of anyone who crosses them. We might not want to do what they do, but we still want to be as they are. From that twisted perspective, they solve other people’s problems and never have any of their own. The Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, for example, recently convicted for no less than nineteen murders, was known for distributing free turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving and for fighting to keep drugs out of his native South Boston. Yet neither of those was true.
So what does it say about our collective psyche that we look up to and admire men like Tony Soprano in fiction and fact? Well, basically we all need to believe in something—that we’re not powerless and that someday we’ll get the rewards we truly deserve. We emulate the qualities in mobsters we see lacking in ourselves, even though this means overlooking the bad that comes with them. Tween girls want to date Jahar because he’s hot and somebody that cute can’t possibly be guilty of murder; they can’t get past this bad boy’s looks any more than adults can get past the ability of bad men to command respect and have their rings kissed. I don’t know what’s more chilling: that his fandom wants to save Jahar or the fact that they believe he can be saved. The kid, dark brooding and gorgeous or not, put a backpack stuffed with a bomb in front of an eight-year-old boy, remember? Juxtaposed against his outward beauty, the ugliness that lies within this kid becomes strangely, and sadly, ironic.
In the same courtroom where Jahar may himself appear, for weeks we couldn’t take our eyes off Whitey Bulger because he kicked the ass of anyone who opposed him even as he hoodwinked the FBI. He was lots of things, but most of all he had the kind of power all of us inwardly crave. Michael Corleone didn’t really want to become the Don, only wanted to do right for his family. Tony Soprano could strangle an informant and meet up with his daughter an hour later to finish her college tour. And you don’t want to mess with either, just like we don’t want anyone to mess with us. We want to make people offers they can’t refuse, even if that means we have to be a little bit bad or ugly inside too, our reasoning just as skewed as those young girls wasting printer ink on love letters to a psychopath.
Would Rolling Stone have put Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover if he didn’t look like a Backstreet Boy? Of course not, because that would’ve upset the paradigm of the brooding James Dean/Marlon Brando character recast as a Shakespearean Richard III type. Jahar looks like he’s ready to be saved just like Tony Soprano always looks ready to kick somebody’s ass.
We want to believe there’s hope amid all the ugliness. It’s in our natures to be optimistic and sometimes to idealize our moral lessers because they have the power to get away with not giving a damn. But we shouldn’t look down for our heroes, we should look up to the likes of Caitlin Strong, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux or Lee Child’s wonderful Jack Reacher. They actually care and at heart just want to make the world a better place. We are richer for reading them or meeting those in real life who embody the same qualities that make them heroes. There are plenty of them out there, in fact as well as fiction.