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Powells.com
Saturday, November 23rd, 2002


 

Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventure in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw

by

A review by Steven Fidel

A romp amongst the reality and hyper-reality of the Wild Wild West, Mark Svenvold's Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventure in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw follows the humble bumblings of one pathetic criminal.

Svenvold, a well-regarded poet, spins a rich and wonderful tale. After briefly framing McCurdy's sad beginnings, the zippy narrative follows Elmer to his unhappy end, and well beyond. Svenvold's research not only takes the reader on a good bit of foraging in the seediest corners of the American entertainment industry, it also puts to rest the much-disparaged life of Elmer McCurdy.

Eventually found in 1972 on a set for The Six Million Dollar Man, outlaw McCurdy's mummified body was still so awash in cyanide (the 19th century's favorite tonic for body preservation) the corpse could only be handled when wearing gloves. At first, the set dressers thought McCurdy was just another prop for yet another victory by Steve Austin over America's 1970s evildoers. When Elmer's head fell off, astute stagehands began asking questions.

Research eventually revealed that McCurdy had spent the previous seventy years being passed from unscrupulous morticians to prairie museums to circuses and other freak sideshows. McCurdy, as it turned out, had been infinitely more successful in death than in life. Pathetic to the end of his thirty-four years, poor Elmer eventually died of gunshot wounds after attempting one of the most poorly planned, amateurish train robberies the West had ever seen — or so the story went.

The story of Elmer, however, is more than the sad life of a hapless thief. It is an elegant meditation on celebrity, infamy, and fame, as well as our nostalgia for the romantic mythology surrounding western migration — a mythology that has been grossly contaminated by the Hollywood lens and cleaned up in approved American history texts.

Romance, in its essential forms, was glaringly absent in the real Wild West. Endless brutality, mendacity, filth, and exploitation were the essential elements of our path to "manifest destiny." Few escaped unscathed, and murder was quite often an expedient fix for undesirable bodies.

At the risk of hyperbole, Elmer McCurdy, as a work, is one of the truest metaphors of the American West ever published in these United States. In terms of both artistic and accurate portrayals of 19th-century America, it could be ranked with the best. Perhaps not on par with, say, Huckleberry Finn, Little Big Man, The Rise of Silas Lapham, or The Confidence Man, but certainly in the same ballpark.

Little House on the Prairie, it ain't. But if it's a wry, poignant, human, ultimately tragic, and infinitely entertaining story you crave, take some time out of your weekend and read this book. If nothing else, your troubles will pale beside the sad life of a genuine shoot-'em-up outlaw.


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