david mclean | dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun


is a nation of fierce and unforgiving images. Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry pointing a 44 magnum at a outlaw he is about to kill. John Wayne as the Ringo Kid spinning a Winchester 30-30 in STAGECOACH. Charles Bronson standing sideways while he points a pistol in a movie still for DEATH WISH. Kevin Bacon aiming his gunfinger at Sean Penn in MYSTIC RIVER. A blood smeared Warren Oates leaning into that lethal Browning fifty caliber machine gun in THE WILD BUNCH. The list is practically endless. Simply because the capacity for violence in America is also endless. Endless, hypnotic, and perversely and enormously attractive.

I’m staring at the iconic photograph of John Dillinger standing on the lawn outside his father’s house in Mooresville, Indiana. He’s holding a Thompson sub machine gun in one hand and that infamous wooden gun in the other and he’s got the biggest smile in the universe plastered across his face. I don’t know how many times I’ve studied this image but right now the more that I look at it the more I realize it isn’t just an offhand snapshot that Billie Frechette took as a whim. This image is really so much more than that. On the surface, it’s Dillinger giving the FBI the biggest finger in the world, simply because the photograph was taken shortly after he had escaped from Crown Point. Below the surface, if you know anything about Dillinger you know that the machine gun he actually carried on bank raids was streamlined. It had no wooden stock and Dillinger preferred using clips because they were lightweight. In the snapshot, this Thompson has a fifty slug drum attached beneath the barrel which would make the weapon much heavier, so you realize that this is a staged shot, meant for newspaper reporters, law officers, and the voyeur public at large. Posing for this photograph was a simple act of provocation, meant to invoke both wonder and anger from practically everyone. Or, to put it into contemporary terms, Dillinger is trying to push all the hot buttons.

However, it’s the wooden gun in his other hand that, over the years, has created the most interest. This is supposedly the piece that Dillinger used in his jail break from Crown Point. But, did he? This question, among several others, is what has made Dillinger’s wooden gun so irresistibly interesting, so undeniably desirable.

Another question, maybe more to the point of the whole Crown Point episode, is why would a man like Dillinger take such an unbelievable risk with nothing more than a wooden gun when that jail was so heavily guarded? The chances for being shot were just as good if he had been armed with a real weapon. While asking myself this question, I am for some strange reason reminded of the Russian writer Isaac Babel who rode with the Cossacks during the Russian/Polish War of 1920. Babel was a war correspondent who had somehow had insinuated himself into the thick of the action and was carrying a pistol at the time, but the pistol was not loaded. Now, why did he do that? Why would he put himself at such insane risk? Was he tempting the gods? Nobody really knows the answer to either question, and because this is the case, these actions become mysterious, enigmatic, and ultimately dangerous little psychic riddles.

In fact, that photograph of Dillinger holding the wooden gun is in itself a riddle. Superficially, it is evidence of Dillinger’s joke on J. Edgar Hoover and law enforcement in general, but in a larger sense it may also be his joke on America and in an even larger sense his own personal cosmic joke on the universe, even oblivion itself. We will never actually know. But, that won’t keep any of us from fantasizing.

What we do know is that the riddle of the wooden gun is very much a mystery that hints at darker, maybe demonic things, among them the pure sense of apocalypse in America. Naturally, we could say that the wooden gun is really nothing more than a wooden gun, maybe even a toy and leave it at that. We could also be just as superficial regarding Poe’s Raven, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter A, Ahab’s white whale and all of its subsequent dreamings and meanings, Huck Finn’s raft, Hart Crane’s Bridge, the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in THE GREAT GATSBY, and Faulkner’s mythic bear. But, we won’t, or rather, I won’t because these are the kinds of images, these are the haunted emblems, these are the riddles, the limitless possibilities and the dark impossibilities that both obscure and define America.

I’ve been haunted for a long time by both the story and the mythology of Dillinger’s wooden gun. Twenty years ago when I visited the Dillinger Museum in Nashville, Indiana, I saw the wooden gun displayed along with other personal effects in a glass case. Or, lets say I saw one of several extent variations of it. Since that time, I couldn’t get the image of that gun or its impact on me out of my mind. In fact, even before that I used the idea of it briefly in The Name Is Dillinger. But, I was never completely satisfied that with that version. It works fine for the section but somehow it lacks finish, fleshing out, expanded imagination, psychic daring.

At any rate, that wooden gun image boiled around inside my subconscious for at least thirty years. From time to time I might have mentioned it in a few other Dillinger sections as well, but I never really dealt with it the way that it needed to be explored. Then, one day last year suddenly and almost by surprise I began to think about the wooden gun again. Earlier in the day I’d been imagining Dillinger holding the wooden gun in that photograph and I just let that image become a kind of dream movie that looped itself around in my mind. This was going on while I was sitting in a local restaurant up near the mountains called The Flying Star. In fact, I was writing down fragmented lines on the back of a receipt from a bookstore when I glanced up and looked out on the restaurant’s patio. It was April first, ironically April Fool’s Day and the weather was deliciously warm. It was the kind of day when you knew you could literally do anything.

I was working on an ice tea and a huge chocolate chip cookie and the way the sun was slashing in at very bright yellow angles and the way the wind was blowing lightly and the way the mountains looked thrusting far up into the blue on blue sky made it all feel as though this was the first day of the earth. Then I glanced around at the people sitting out on the patio the way you usually do when you are casually eating and thinking and enjoying the feeling of just being alive and that’s when I saw Cormac McCarthy. He was sitting at a table near the wall of windows with a friend, talking, gesturing, signing a large bundle of papers one at a time. At first, I doubted that this was Cormac McCarthy but the more that I stared at this man the more I realized I was right.

I knew that McCarthy was not open to strangers and I also realized that there was something magical about this moment and approaching him for any reason would have almost certainly destroyed it. I am a great believer in signs and portents and I just wanted to enjoy what was happening because something I didn’t quite understand was taking place. Call it a kind of spontaneous duende or just simply hooking up with the power circuit of the universe; it doesn’t matter but a poem was really starting to race through me and I realized that this was not going to be a short poem. And, it wasn’t going to be something that would reasonably fit into a quick twenty pages either. This definitely was going to be longer than that. Much longer and then I was scrounging my pockets for scraps of paper to write on.

Every once in awhile I’d glance up and see McCarthy still sitting there, still as alive, still as animated as ever. I’d found a few blank pieces of paper in Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, a novel I’d gone back to simply because I love Chandler’s screwball narrative. I like to carry extra sheets of paper in a book I might have with me when I go out just in case I get a poem I wasn’t looking for. After nearly an hour I’d filled up all of that paper with random lines of pseudo historical and mythological references to Dillinger’s wooden gun and when I looked up again, Cormac McCarthy and his friend were gone.

The fact that he was gone made me feel as though I’d lost a secret ingredient of the poem, but by now I was so far into writing The Riddle of the Wooden Gun it really didn’t matter. I felt hugely and immensely propelled into something that for me was as important as writing The Name Is Dillinger, The Sign Of The Gun, Relentless, and The Corpse Is Dreaming. The moment I arrived home I sat down at the computer and just stayed there writing for the next two hours. The following day I did the same thing. And the next and the next and the next and the next. I worked on The Riddle of the Wooden Gun beginning with that first day in April and finally put the finishing touches on it sometime during the eighteenth, though I think I really only worked on it for fourteen days. I needed to take those few extra days to see how it would sound. It had to somehow resonate inside me. It had to light me up. I had to feel the poem fly through me like some kind of manic crow.

As far as the poem is concerned, it runs to almost five thousand lines. At least as long as Crane’s THE BRIDGE, probably longer than Lorca’s POET IN NEW YORK, nearly as long as Dorn’s GUNSLINGER. And, while Riddle is an integral part of DILLINGER overall, it could easily stand on its own as a finished piece of work. And, I believe it could easily be compared to all of these poems as well.

However, while Riddle will certainly hold its own as a long poem, what it does beyond all that is it works as one of the central keys to understanding DILLINGER. The poem, like that iconic photograph of Dillinger holding the wooden gun, and the actual wooden gun itself, is a kind of riddle much the same as the scarlet letter, the white whale, or Faulkner’s bear. None of these riddles will ever be solved to anyone’s particular satisfaction, but it isn’t really a solution that anyone is after. It’s the rich cluster of possibilities that these kinds of riddles offer. These are the riddle clusters that we all dream from. In fact, these kinds of riddles arise from a national core of dreaming, the place where we all get our faces from. And, I remain alive in the mystery of

Dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun.


never told
nobody this
but i always
took the
toy wooden
gun my
daddy whittled
out of hick
ory for me
it was a nice
shiny well
made little
pistol that
fit right into
the palm
of my hand
& if you
are thinking
as i know
you are
what good
is a wooden
gun against
a machine
gun then
you know
why my
heart is
going so
fast it feels
like it
will jump
right up
my throat
but some
thing in
side me
way back
in the dream
ing place
is telling
me that
the wooden
gun will
keep me

Book review by David McLean

This book by poet Todd Moore is a single long poem that presents over its whole length a story of Dillinger and other outlaws and their wooden guns. Alongside the real guns we hear of the replicas, clumsily or skilfully made toys that they possessed, that were used as props in robberies, that were accorded symbolic weight, that developed from the childhood interest in toys, that carried the kids violent icon, his weapon, over into the man’s toy

dillinger never
told his
old man
abt the wooden
gun he
found at
the movies
he sneaked
it into
the house
& hid it
under the
bed & when
he had to
turn the lights
off & go
to sleep he’d
put the wooden
gun under
his pillow
dillinger won
dered if a
wooden gun
ever gave
off any light

(p 62)

The disjointed effect of the abbreviated lines here works well, though it does not always work well in poems, the effect is more difficult to achieve than it looks and is not just a question of having a finger itchy for the trigger Enter on the keyboard. Here however it is done consummately, the words often broken in the middle as in “won | dered” above to match the patterns of syntactic dislocation that are appropriate to the poem, the story. It’s also an effective technique in relaying to us the strangeness of the spoken word, later we can feel in it a man talking

& i had him
make me
a little 25
auto swee
test little
wood pis
tol you
ever laid
eyes on

(p 101-2)

The gun grows to a riddle, a mystery, a magical symbol, a talisman

.. billie she
sd if i give
you a woo
den gun
will you
promise to
give me
a real one
was crad
ling the
wooden gun
in her arms
like it
was a baby
rocking it
to nighty
night what
happens when
you get the
wooden gun’s
shadow on
you makes
you feel so
goddam lost
dillinger isn’t
sure this is
the beginning
of a fairy tale
a riddle or
a question
so he just
quiet while
billie sd
pour a little
cat’s blood
on it &
she’ll peel
right off
like a
boiled po
tato skin

(p 72-3)

The shadow of the gun is maybe the shadow of the violent imagery that makes a boy a “man,” the socially conditioned iconography of violence that subjects the children who grow to be the old kind of outlaw as surely as it subjects monks to their novitiates, or maybe it’s something less glibly definable, the real power of weapons over us as we touch them, the destructive potential that we are, especially when we stroke weapons and wonder if we might be gods.

The wooden gun is what frightens people, the children’s toy, the artifact that represents and, as mimetic, pretends to be the real thing. The reality becomes indifferent. Like today, what is disgusting is violent sexual abuse, not films about violent sexual abuse, they’re probably just a vent.

he was
holding a
in one hand
& a wooden
gun in the
but for
some strange
was afraid
of the
it was the
gun that
had every
one edging
back toward
the wall
some kind
of black
energy was
off the
gun &
just hanging
in the
air like
strands of
very dark

(p 75)

I may be reading into this more than the writer intends, or something different, maybe less, but the gun itself, the oily metal thing that tends to get dirty and kills if you ask it to, is only a signified, the forgotten object at the end of a chain of signifiers that includes kid’s toys and the elaborate toy guns with which Al Capone rewarded his favorite pistoleros. The real gun might as well not exist any more, the killers can always find something else to kill with, but the glory of the child’s toy is what puts the smoking gun in the man’s latter-day hand.

In the longer passage I shall take the liberty of quoting here, Moore related the known phenomenon of confabulation of our own memory of what should be closest to us to the newspapers habit of bullshitting

took out all
the bad
words in
the news
papers but
in his dreams
recalls more
than he sd
or less
he wasn’t
sure which
but that
was ok
nobody wd
get any
of it right
the part
abt the
wooden gun
first theory
he had a
real 45 auto
& a wooden
gun too
second theory
he had just
the 45 auto
& on his
journey up
the corridor
of cells an
inmate slipped
him a wooden
gun he’d just
got done
third theory
he grabbed a
wooden gun
off a guard’s
desk on the
way out
& he used
that instead
of the real
45 auto just
to see how
far it wd
get him
g. russell
in his book
edited by
william hel
mer suggests
that herbert
attorney smug
gled a wooden
gun to young
blood & he
slipped the
piece to dill
or maybe it
really was
a 45 auto

(p 83-4

We are all in the same boat as the bandido, but what the fuck, nobody else remembers exactly how their lives went down. It’s a hard thought for somebody missing his childhood golden sunsets and how maybe some bird used to sound. But you’re probably making most of it up, picking pieces from films, lines from songs, whatever. Our histories are edited by Mr Blatant Need-For-Reassurance and he’s a crummy and corrupt hack.

As this poem progresses the wooden gun becomes an overdetermined symbol, it acquires the ability to prophesy and serve as a sign for almost everything seen through the darkening lenses of American outlaw mythology

a wooden
gun shot all
to pieces
a wooden
gun thrown
down a
well nightmare
water &
the black
taste of dream
a wooden
gun out of
a fence slat
tom sawyer
painting it
the color
of a dead
man’s face
annie oakley
the barrel
off a wooden
gun that
frank butler
by the grip
between his

( p 133-4)

Dashiel Hammett is allowed to conclude the story, talking to Hemingway of the riddle of the wooden gun at a cocktail party, the mystery is not one susceptible of explanation,

hammett re
turned hem
ingway’s grin
& sd it’s
not that kind
of mystery
then what is
it hemingway
sd growing
paused again
stared into
his bourbon
& sd the
stuff that
dreams are
made of

(p 142)

Ultimately, it was a gun symbol, a token of pseudo-manhood, the wood that boys hold in their hands before they have real hard cocks to hold, what might become a baby in a little girl’s womb, it’s iconography and mythology, and it doesn’t matter if it’s real, or what really happened, to is or to us as we remember things, it’s the futility of recollecting any history; it’s a good story and it symbolizes something and imparts some meaning. It imparts, like any well written poem, the meaning the reader finds in it. It would be nicer if Moore agrees with anything I said, but I think ultimately the point is that it doesn’t matter. The wooden gun might have been a soap gun, people disagree. I like to think that Dillinger didn’t die and actually had an extraordinarily large penis, but in some sense the Dillinger of whom we speak nowadays is as real as Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. That’s very real, but he’s only tenuously connected to the body of young man who almost certainly died that day, just over thirty years old, whether or not he was hung like a horse.

As Moore himself says in an essay available here http://www.geocities.com/lumoxraindog/essayriddle.html

“However, while Riddle will certainly hold its own as a long poem, what it does beyond all that is it works as one of the central keys to understanding DILLINGER. The poem, like that iconic photograph of Dillinger holding the wooden gun, and the actual wooden gun itself, is a kind of riddle much the same as the scarlet letter, the white whale, or Faulkner’s bear. None of these riddles will ever be solved to anyone’s particular satisfaction, but it isn’t really a solution that anyone is after. It’s the rich cluster of possibilities that these kinds of riddles offer. These are the riddle clusters that we all dream from. In fact, these kinds of riddles arise from a national core of dreaming, the place where we all get our faces from. And, I remain alive in the mystery of Dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun.”

The book is a great poem, a good story, an entry in the epic outlaw Dillinger mythology and also a work about where dreams and myth and reality and the poetizing magic of the darkness in us all coincide. As such i really think you shall buy it, I hold a token gun of soap at your backs to make you do so here, as Dillinger launders his story again, robbers usually ask for more than fifteen dollars I believe at Lummox Press.

Todd Moore | Photo: Roy Manzanares


Filed under reviews on todd moore

2 Responses to david mclean | dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun

  1. What, no mention of Herbert Youngblood who actually carved the gun? He was the only person that Dillinger took with him when he escaped from Crown Point, IN

  2. My apologies, I did see Mr. Youngblood’s name even if it wasn’t in the proper context. He carved the gun used in the escape

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