Jim Tully (1891-1947) was the most successful writer ever to emerge from the train towns and cornfields of rural west central Ohio. A prominent American novelist and journalist from the 1920s through the 1940s and an acknowledged pioneer of the 'hardboiled' school of American writing, Tully has become so obscure in the decades since his death that I, who grew up in the Ohio town named in the last word of the first chapter of Beggars of Life, knew nothing about Tully until earlier this month. Now some of the fog around Jim Tully seems to be lifting. Some of his books are coming back into print in handsome editions with forewords by the likes of Harvey Pekar and John Sayles, and they can be purchased at Amazon.com. (Older editions are also available at reasonable prices from online booksellers.)
I have just finished Beggars of Life, Tully's 1924 autobiographical hobo picaresque (the title will ring a bell for film buffs; this book inspired the 1928 film of the same name starring Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen), and I found it an interesting but very uneven book. An episodic, first-person account of life on the rails in the early years of the 20th century, the book is a valuable portrait of a lost American subculture and an invaluable record of its language. In the hobo world, a 'glim' is a lamp; a 'yegg' is an itinerant professional thief; a 'jocker' is an older tramp who dominates a younger and weaker 'punk.' This last pair of terms intrigues me. Is 'jocker' a derivative of 'jockey,' thus designating one who 'rides' a punk, in every connotation of 'ride'? In the discussion of jockers and punks, Tully goes about as far as he can, given the censorship of the day, toward the delineation of a little-known but not uncommon form of same-sex relationship inside the early 20th-century hobo subculture.
Tully's prose, however, impresses me considerably less than these sociological or anthropological aspects of the book. While he does score the occasional pointed epigram (a lawyer is described as "more polished...possibly from long having been used as a tool") and one almost surrealistically apt simile ("seventeen years have staggered by like wounded drunkards in the rain"--a simile so bad it's brilliant!), Tully is for the most part an uninspired writer here. And for a guy with a hardboiled reputation, he can write pretty flabbily at times. Here are two consecutive paragraphs that exemplify Tully, fat and lean:
I lived much among the women of looser sex in my youth because I was able to obtain a certain amount of understanding from them, and as understanding is near to sympathy, the latter also.
Rabbit Town was that section of St. Mary's where men only went at night. It consisted of some frame houses furnished with tawdry attempts at finery. Edna lived in one of these houses.
I called this book 'uneven,' and this is a good example of what I mean. These consecutive paragraphs sound as though they were written by different writers. The first is baggy, vague and circumlocutious (it had to be vague, of course, given the censorship under which Tully wrote); the second is as plain and direct as the frame houses it describes. The second paragraph was written by the Tully who can be mentioned in the same breath as Hammett, Chandler and Cain, if not Hemingway. (And it must be said that even at his worst here, Tully is a better writer than Theodore Dreiser. But then, Dreiser's reputation would plummet severely if anyone actually read his books.)
There are good things in Beggars of Life, enough to make it worth reading, but I ended the book wishing it had been better written and constructed. In addition to the spotty prose, the book rambles tramp-like from episode to episode, one damn thing after another (to cite someone's definition of novelistic fiction), without any real narrative arc tying the pieces together. This is especially problematic at novel's end, when the story peters out disappointingly. And while some of the chapters are very good (chapter 28, "Happenings," is a miniature masterpiece with a fine, chilling last line), others go by faster than a mail train on the Plains and leave the reader's memory as soon as the page is turned. Beggars of Life is not a great or even a very good book overall, but it is a damn interesting one.