Joe David Brown
A couple of years back, I wrote a blog entry on this site about my repeat viewings of True Grit (60s version) and how they led to reading the novel of the same name and thence to awaiting the Coen brothers movie remake. Recently I’ve had a parallel experience with the movie Paper Moon and the novel that birthed it, Addie Pray (later changed to Paper Moon when the picture came out). I’ve watched Paper Moon at least eight times over the last forty years, so reading the novel was an inevitability. I was pleased to discover that half of it takes place in Alabama and that the author, Joe David Brown, was from Birmingham. Couldn’t call him up; he died in the 70s. The Life magazine blurb on the paperback I bought at the BPL Friends Bookstore (different from the same library edition I had actually been reading for days) promised that “not since True Grit has there been a more disarming heroine” than the main character/narrator Addie Pray. Another happy coincidence locked into place.
Did it matter that I knew the plot? No, because I just knew the movie’s plot, which takes up only about the first half of the book. Here’s what it was: a rich expansion in every way on the film, with almost all of the movie’s eminently quotable lines, plus more to boot (I know the novel came first but I’m referring to my out of sync experience).
The story concerns an eleven-year-old orphan (Addie Pray) and a man who is possibly her dad, Moses “Long Boy” Pray. They traverse the Southeast during the Depression using the man’s steel-trap brain and the girl’s putative innocence to con people out of their money. It’s so much enormous fun to watch the two fleece folks that you don’t stop to think of the tragedies they leave on the receiving end. That’s largely because you never see them. Addie and Moses have skipped town by the time the marks have realized, if the ever do, that they’ve been had. There’s thrilling buoyancy here. Supporting characters, indelible in the movie, are of course more fully realized in the book. Trixie Delight, a floozy even Long Boy drops his guard for. Trixie’s African-American servant Imogene, who provides a counter-narrative of Trixie’s pratfalls. Floyd, the hotel desk clerk and “pea-patch Romeo.” And, as we move up the scale, Major Lee, who will give Addie and Moses doctoral training in what may be the ultimate grift.
Huck Finn, and the “lighting out for the territory” he stands for, didn’t end with Twain’s novel. He sired a long series of rebels, eccentrics, deviants, rogues, and opportunists that continue to juice up the American novel to this day. Addie Pray is as zingy as any of them, and ready to plunge into the United States of Possibility. If that means being largely amoral, she doesn’t give a hoot. Don’t spend any time thinking about her morality, because while you’re doing so she’s lifted your wallet.
PS—Other grifting movies that beckon repeat viewings are The Sting and The Grifters.