Pity for Criminals?

Peeking behind the felonious façade of everyday crime.

Pitiful Criminals

By Greg Bottoms

Counterpoint Press, $16.95

Greg bottoms may come from suburbia, but he knows about crime—real-life crime, not the Hollywood version you see on TV. His older brother, you see, tried unsuccessfully to kill his family. His name was Michael, and he’d once been a good-looking athlete in Poquoson, Virginia, the boy next door whom everyone admired. But he was also a schizophrenic and, in his teen years, became consumed by the demons in his head. They spoke to him while his parents and youngest brother slept. (Greg was in college at that time.) To silence the voices, to kill the demons, Michael emptied half a gas can on the bottom floor of their rancher, lit a match and rode off on his mother’s bicycle as the house began to burn. This really happened. And it is the basis for the first and last stories in Bottoms’ sixth book, a collection entitled Pitiful Criminals.

I say “basis” because Bottoms, who is now a professor of English at the University of Vermont, makes it clear in the opening author’s note that “this book blends autobiography and essay with fictionalized re-creations …. imagination plays as significant a part as memory or fact.” Each story is told from the point of view of the same omniscient narrator, which helps to tie all the narratives together. At times, this link is strong, as when the subject is the narrator’s brother, and other times tenuous, as when the pitiful criminal is twice removed (“I knew a guy who knew this guy”), but the voice is consistent. The narrator is Bottoms.

In “Hit and Run,” Bottoms writes of a Norfolk crack addict who tries to rob a 7-Eleven, pretending the steak knife shoved in his pocket is a gun. When the hardened cashier refuses to open the till, a man in line gives him 20 bucks and the addict flees. Then he steals a car and jets off to buy a hit from his dealer. As he’s flying along in the stolen car, he plows into a white Nissan and then takes off on foot. And who was driving that Nissan? The narrator. “That’s really not even fiction,” Bottoms says of this incident. “That actually happened.”

So why, then, is this book listed as fiction and not memoir? “In that story,” Bottoms continues, “I kind of inhabit the criminal’s mind at the beginning. The point of view is his at the beginning of the story, with his panicked need for crack. So I just think you’ve got to call that a piece of fiction, even though I’m very much using a documentary template.”

This biopic impression is aided by the intricately drawn pencil illustrations that accompany each story (crafted by W. David Powell, a professor of art at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh). The layout is stark, with lots of white space on the page and an economy of style in the storytelling. “We live in faster and faster times,” says Bottoms. “I’m going to write as if we all have a short attention span … I’m just trying to pack it in and have it move along with a kind of musical, poetic style, but with a sense of urgency.”

Just as he does in “Hit and Run,” Bottoms delves into the minds and motivations of each criminal featured in the 13 stories. Even with those who committed horrific acts—such as a church handyman who raped and murdered a woman, then buried her in the garden she was tending—Bottoms seeks to find the heart of these wretched characters, digging down to the events (the handyman was sexually abused as a child) that might fill the reader with compassion rather than hate.

“I wanted to investigate the nature of what drives people to do crimes,” he says. “Social circumstances, familial circumstances, cultural circumstances. And also I wanted to show that real crime is pitiful. It’s despairing. It’s just so small and banal a lot of times. Most books portray crime as quite sensational. I almost feel like I want to de-sensationalize it, demystify it, to say this is who really commits crime.”

There are no criminal masterminds in this book. In one story, a small-time drug dealer gets stoned and locks himself out of his own house, located in a quiet suburb. As he is looking for a way in, a patrol car spots him. To escape, the dealer bashes in the window on the back door. The cops follow him inside, with breaking and entering as a probable cause, and what do they find? A hydroponic grow system with track lights and misters nurturing 80 pot plants.

The criminals in this book all come from sad situations. Some are violent, others deranged, but all are, in one way or another, worthy of pity. And that’s what makes this collection so noteworthy. Bottoms gives readers a tour of the terrible world inhabited by the outcasts and fringe-dwellers of society, exposing us to the intolerable circumstances that lead to their poor choices. Are we really so different from any of these aimless souls?

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