On the Rails and On the Ropes in Oklahoma
This spring sees the publication of On the Ropes, a long-awaited sequel to James Vance’s earlier graphic novel, Kings in Disguise, which followed the hard journey of teenage Freddie Bloch. When Freddie’s father loses his job in the Great Depression, Freddie goes from being a nice Jewish kid to the life of a hard-luck hobo, one of nearly a quarter million other homeless youth, riding the rails. He meets Sam, who claims to be the “King of Spain” and together they find themselves in some of the landmark moments of the Great Depression – including the 1932 Ford Hunger Strike of unemployed workers at the River Rouge plant in Michigan.
By the end of Kings in Disguise, Freddie has helped an ailing Sam return to his hometown, and embarked on another journey solo, now sure that his mission in life is the cause of organizing the poor and giving voice to the common man.
On the Ropes finds Freddie in 1937, a few years after leaving Sam. He’s still on the road, but now working in a circus funded by the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The action takes place in a few months’ time but, as Vance said in a recent interview with Oklahoma magazine, historically “this two-month period… was incredibly full of events.”
Another Oklahoman published a real-life thriller with a hobo protagonist in 1935. Jim Thompson, later famous for pulp novels like The Grifters and silver-screen collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, wrote “The Strange Death of Eugene Kling,” a detective story for True Detective magazine. Thompson, son of a deputy sheriff who hit hard times, grew up in the shadow world of Oklahoma and for a while in the mid-1930s eked out a living as a true-crime writer.
In “Eugene Kling,” Thompson records the true story of Robert Norwood, a young hobo in Oklahoma. When his friend is found murdered, Norwood sets out to solve the mystery and bring the killer to justice. That (as recapped in Soul of a People) involves gathering evidence in homeless shelters and tracking down suspects by hopping a freight. Thompson used all the storytelling devices at his disposal – what he called his “little bag of tricks” – and made the hobo detective’s tale not only a gripping read but a window into the lives of the homeless. “The Strange Death of Eugene Kling” was both unsparing in its view of human nature and sensitive in its portrayal of young Norwood’s trials: the loneliness, hard landings, privations, and hopes for a stable life.
When writing crime stories failed to pay the bills, Thompson joined the Works Progress Administration, just like Freddie Bloch. Except Thompson joined the Federal Writers’ Project, and went on the road to document Oklahoma life for the American Guide series, known as the WPA guides. It was hard work for low pay but like Bloch, Thompson came to see it as a sort of mission, working his way up to editor before leaving in frustration.
To honor him and Vance’s characters, here’s the full story of “The Strange Death of Eugene Kling,” with pictures, as it appeared in November 1935.