Dillinger is a cluster of mysteries, each one diving headlong into the next. M. C. Escher is the only artist who might have been capable of capturing all of his constantly changing portraits just before they collapsed into themselves. His very essence is a series of essences which were peculiarly american and mysteriously unknown. He looks like someone who could easily have lived next door to you. Part of his visceral genius was his ability to blend in. He also looks like a guy who could have been a celebrity race car driver, a big name baseball player with say the all time record for stealing bases and hitting home runs without the need for steroids. He was a mass of energy masquerading as a man. He could have been a movie star, someone with James Dean’s electric elusiveness and Bogart’s unpredictably violent darkness. I sometimes like to think that Godard used Dillinger as an extra in BREATHLESS, knowing full well who he was and relishing every nano second of it. But this is part of the ongoing charisma of John Dillinger. Surviving his death at the Biograph Theater in 1934. Living on in a culture long after the people who killed him were long dead. It’s like the ultimate hustle in an age when the hustle is the only available gospel we have left.
Once, in the middle of a high stakes poker game, a gambler asked Dillinger, If you weren’t John Dillinger, who would you like to be? Dillinger thought the question over for a few moments while he ran his fingers over the edges of the four aces he held in his hand. Then he looked up, grinned around the cigaret he held between his teeth and said, Dillinger.
Dashiell Hammett, when asked about his novel THE MALTESE FALCON, replied, Sam Spade is who every private eye thinks he is, and what I, on occasion dreamt that I thought I could’ve been. Not that I am or ever could have been a bankrobber. I guess it’s the outlaw in me. The magnetic drag and pull of the outlaw or trickster in an age when cheap irony, predatory coyness, the big lie, the arrogant spin, and outright bullshit are enough to slide along on.
And while Dillinger was both loveable and deadly inside all of his nitro charismas, he was also a riddle. Or, should I say a collection of riddles. So many unanswered questions still surround his life, it’s really difficult to know exactly where to begin. For example, why did he bother to associate with a man as lunatic deadly as Baby Face Nelson? Or, why did Dillinger hang around so long in Chicago in the spring and summer of 1934? Why didn’t he just light out for the territory, Mexico, South America? Why wasn’t he long gone by July 22, the night he was shot down while coming out of the movies? Or, why did Dillinger always feel the need to play the coyote trickster and try to one up the cops? What was that all about? Was he playing death wish tag just to see how long he could fuck with fate?
The most fascinating unanswered question of all is what about Dillinger’s wooden gun? No biographer that I know of has ever satisfactorily explained what actually happened at Crown Point Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, March 3, 1934. Did John Dillinger have an automatic or did he use a wooden gun that resembled an automatic in his jailbreak? To this day, nobody knows absolutely and for sure. Some wooden guns attributed to Dillinger have survived but none can be verified as actually having been the one he used that day.
What occurred to me recently while writing a section of Dillinger entitled The Riddle Of The Wooden Gun is that it isn’t the actual wooden gun that has any importance in the Dillinger story. It’s the riddle itself. A riddle can reveal more about the human condition than any thick volume of historical fact. A riddle can point us in the direction of enormously rich archetypal possibilities. About Dillinger, guns, violence, dreams, and most of all about america.
But, let’s start with the riddle. And let’s make it broad enough to include almost everything known and possible regarding this mystery. What is the riddle of Dillinger’s wooden gun? The riddle, of course, includes the mystery of the gun itself, did it actually exist and if so, did Dillinger really use it to break out of jail? Also, was the gun just simply wood and if so what did it look like? And, how did Dillinger come into the possession of a wooden gun? Beyond reality based questions, should we also consider the possibility of the wooden gun’s magical qualities? Was the wooden gun capable of shape shifting? Was the wooden gun a kind of collective hallucination that some of the Crown Point guards were having? And, ultimately, was the wooden gun an outlaw version of the american dream? What kind of gun can bring freedom instead of captivity, offer dreams instead of despair, and hold the possibility of healing instead of wounding followed by nightmares and nightmarish death?
What makes the riddle of the wooden gun so unendingly attractive is that this riddle can’t really ever be solved. And, maybe that is the heart of the fascination with the wooden gun. Think of it this way. Most of us read murder mysteries simply to find out who the killer was. Once you discover the murderer, the book’s interest dwindles and you have no reason to read it again. Unless, of course it is THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, or THE MALTESE FALCON.
And, I know here I am using the words riddle and mystery interchangeably, but I consider some mysteries to be a mine field of riddles and some riddles to be so deeply layered with mystery as to be completely and utterly unsolvable. Which brings me back to the riddle of the wooden gun. Dillinger’s wooden gun is so undeniably a part of his story, it’s virtually inseparable from the legend of the man. The wooden gun is an intimate part of the fabric of the whole Dillinger myth and could no more be untangled from it than Ahab’s harpoon could be separated from Ahab or the Maltese Falcon be subtracted from the plot of the novel. Without the wooden gun and its subsequent riddle, the whole story of Dillinger becomes nothing more than an action movie without an intelligible center. The riddle of the wooden gun is the key to whatever it means to be an outlaw and an american.