“Always set a thief to catch a thief; the greatest deer-stealers make the best park-keepers.”
What can be said of the South that hasn’t already been said? Images of gentlemen and debutantes, cotillions, cool-shaded verandahs, and mint juleps have mesmerized readers courtesy of a slew of prominent Southern writers (from Faulkner to Walker Percy to Margaret Mitchell) whose devotion to their land and its people has earned them a deservedly reputable rank amongst literary greats.
But what about the other half? The South that still recalls the bitter victory of the North and mourns its forgotten glory days; the South with a pock-marked history of racial conflicts, and its bedraggled country folk and “po’ white trash” who’ll do anything for a buck.
Enter, Long Boy and Addie Pray, two Depression-era artful dodgers to whom swindle is a means of survival, and trickery the ultimate high. They bend the law, turn their noses at gullible innocents who fall for their clever deals, but always, always abide by the code of honor amongst thieves.
This is their story, so let’s begin at the beginning: Once upon a time, a talented writer by the name of Joe David Bown, a tried and true Southerner, decided to tell a story about a couple of con artists, Moses “Long Boy” Pray and his illegitimate daughter, Addie. The book, published in 1971 (originally entitled Addie Pray) caught the interest of Hollywood and renowned director, Peter Bogdanovich, who made Brown’s story into an overwhelmingly successful film, starring Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum, and called it Paper Moon.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, fast forward 30 years, and an editor at a New York Publishing firm, Four Walls Eight Windows (4W8W), discovers an old copy of Addie Pray on the dollar rack at a bookstore, reads the book, and tries to track down the author. Discovering that Joe David Brown died in 1976, she gets a hold of his widow, Fran Brown, and explains that 4W8W wishes to re-publish the book, and as a result, re-introduce a forgotten classic.
Spunky heroes and heroines are rampant in Southern literature - witness Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird - but never has a delightful pair haunted the imaginations of readers the way Long Boy and Addie, a kindler, gentler version of Bonnie and Clyde, so to speak, have.
An 11-year-old imp who is whisked away by Long Boy (the shady “businessman”) after her mother dies, Addie can hold her own with the best of them, and is the perfect accomplice in Long Boy’s ventures. We are never quite sure whether Long Boy is Addie’s biological father, but their bond is steadfast, and we can’t imagine one without the other. She is the yin to his yang, and vice versa; when one zigs, the other inevitably zags.
In typical nomadic fashion, the two roam around Alabama, selling anything they can get away with, from Bibles to pictures of the deceased to their living relatives, to cotton to whiskey. Sometimes they get caught, but more often, their clever lines and antics result in success: “Let me tell you, Long Boy wasn’t hiding in the canebrakes when they handed out brains. He could be as slick as they come.” So slick in fact, that even Major Lee, a fellow con artist, expresses his admiration for Long Boy, unsure “whether it was because Long Boy looked so honest and acted so honest and had so much larceny at heart, or whether it was because he could look so dumb and act so dumb and be so smart.”
The object is wealth, no matter how it’s come by, and the pair resort to anything to achieve this. As wise little Addie explains: “I wish everybody in the world could be rich, at least for a little while .What I do know is if that when you have more money than you know what to do with, the world becomes a brighter, simpler place.”
Along the way, they encounter suspicious farmers, angry widows, and a slew of gullible folks whom they manage to charm, then move along to next victim. However, trouble arrives one day in the form of a Miss Trixie Delight whom Long Boys falls for, and Addie realizes that she may have to knock some sense into him. Displeased about Long Boy ooh-ing and ah-ing over the frivolous Trixie, a miffed Addie makes sure that her opponent doesn’t disrupt the harmony of the duo.
A Time reviewer once described Addie perfectly: “Addie is a pint-sized frontier woman - tough, gritty, fiercely protective of her man. . . .” Long Boy is hers, first and foremost, and no one should forget it. Addie is the narrator of the story, and there is a touching hint of sorrow in her tone as she occasionally wonders if “Long Boy and I would settle down someday. . . . Maybe it was because of this lonely, wistful feeling I used to get when we would drive through some quiet, pretty little neighborhood along about nightfall.” Settle down? Long Boy and Addie? Nah, doesn’t seem to fit, really.
As they con their way through one town after another, we find ourselves rooting for the swindlers. We are eager for the so-called bad seeds to win. Fran Brown, who is happy that the book and her husband’s memory have been revived, explains that the reason for this is that “Long Boy and Addie never gyp anyone who doesn’t actually deserve to be gypped.” According to Brown, Joe David was a former police reporter (he also worked for the New York Daily News and Time-Life) who as a result of his beat, discovered numerous details about the skills of conmen.
Brown not only accomplishes the impressive feat of narrating the story beautifully according to Addie, a prepubescent wise-cracking child on the loose, but he also capturing the feel of the South, its manners, problems, charms, and colorful array of characters against the backdrop of the Depression.
Addie and Long Boy eventually meet their match in Major Lee, a distinguished-looking “businessman” (aka con artist) who has amassed himself a fortune, and asks Addie and Long Boy to help in his biggest plan yet: passing Addie off as the long-lost grandchild of a wealthy widow, and taking her for millions. The risky venture proves hysterical and full of unexpected twists and turns (which I won’t divulge), and proves a learning lesson for our favorite villains.
The new edition of Paper Moon should prove as a big of hit as it was in its original publication. Peter Bogdanovich has provided an accompanying introduction which provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of the making of the film. Given the various changes that were included in the movie, however, Fran Brown hopes that “someone will come along and do a musical or another film which is devoted to the rest of the book” and particularly focus on all of Long Boy and Addie’s cons “which are hilarious.”
Unfortunately, Joe David (who has a great-grand child called Addie Pray) isn’t around to witness the resurgent interest in his novel. No worry: Rest in peace, Mr. Brown. Long Boy and Addie are back, and all is right with the world.