America's fascination with outlaws vividly drawn in 'Dirty White Boys'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Remember John Malkovich as the hulking, childlike killer in the movie "Of Mice and Men"? Remember Anthony Hopkins as the psychopath-genius in "Silence of the Lambs" and Robert Mitchum's weird tattoos in that 1955 classic "Night of the Hunter"?

Well, here they all are -- vividly recycled -- in Sun film critic Stephen ("Point of Impact") Hunter's slam-bang action novel "Dirty White Boys," a grungy, good-vs.-evil crime thriller that even Truman Capote would probably enjoy perusing in whatever realm he now habits. The author's greatest challenge here is to make his "just plain folks" hero as engaging as his very wicked and charismatic villain.

Smart, muscular Lamar Pye is top con at Oklahoma State Prison until a rival con puts a price on him -- not on Lamar's head, but on an equally important part of his anatomy. Lamar decides that it's time for him and his massive, retarded cousin Odell to bust out of jail. As an afterthought, they drag along a wimpy artist-inmate named Richard, whose cartoonish sketches fascinate Lamar. Lamar considers himself king of the beasts and wants Richard to draw him the perfect lion.

Hunter shrewdly puts us on his anti-hero's side at first as Lamar foils a grotesque assault upon himself and then loyally hurries off to rescue feeble-minded Cousin Odell from the prison-gang revenge that's sure to follow. But then -- quick as the flick of a switchblade -- Lamar commits two vile, gratuitous murders. His weak, unwilling accomplice Richard realizes -- along with the rest of us -- that Lamar is no glamorous, daring Robin Hood, but rather "A sly genius at disorder, a prince of chaos."

Meanwhile, back at police headquarters, a statewide manhunt gets under way. Fiftyish state trooper Bud Pewtie is assigned to do a routine checkup on a farmhouse that the three escapees just happen to be robbing. The resultant shootout leaves Pewtie's partner dead and gives the author a chance to demonstrate his impressive talent for depicting those trancelike, eye-of-the-storm battle scenes the late filmmaker Sam Peckinpah used to shoot in grisly, voluptuous slo-mo amid spouting blood and exploding skulls.

Seriously wounded by a shotgun blast, Pewtie survives his first of several encounters with Lamar, although the experience knocks Pewtie's id off-kilter. Lamar's image becomes horrifically mixed up with the shabby affair that Pewtie's been having with his dead partner's wife. "The flash of the gun, the softness of her skin . . . the grin on Lamar's face as he pivoted with the shotgun" haunt Pewtie's dreams, and he vows to get Lamar.

The three convicts continue their gory way across Oklahoma. To Pewtie's disgust, local high school kids make a cult hero out of Lamar. Even one of Lamar's victims admires him for being "true to his own." Lamar pairs up with a backwoods Lizzie Borden, who hides his gang on her rundown farm. Now the murderous little family is complete -- with whiny Richard and happy-go-lucky Odell as the two children.

"Dirty White Boys" has a lot of fast, dirty fun tweaking America's love/hate romance with outlaws. Lamar expects to die soon, but he wants to take as many cops as possible down with him. Reading the file on Lamar, Pewtie notes that, back in 1962, one of Lamar's reform school teachers had recommended immediate psychological therapy for young Lamar in order to prevent the establishment of serious personality disorders. Pewtie reads on and discovers that "Of course" Lamar wasn't given any therapy, and "of course" Lamar did become a psychopath. With that, Pewtie puts Lamar's file back and goes off to rejoin a manhunt that's costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. From the standpoint of cost-effectiveness, that cavalier little "of course" is the ultimate villain in Stephen Hunter's highly entertaining crime novel.

Ms. Wynn is a writer living in Massachusetts.

Title: "Dirty White Boys"

Author: Stephen Hunter

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 433 pages, $21

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