Pitiful Criminals is a propulsive blend of true crime, psychological archaeology, sociological reckoning and inventive storytelling that, like the best stories told, always leaves the last line ringing on the string. It's also the best of the new new journalism—i.e. honest, hard-boiled creative fiction you would find in The Oxford American, where part of the book first appeared.
Greg Bottoms investigates 13 crimes he's had the misfortune to have been in the personal orbit of at various periods in his life. These crimes run the gamut from brutal child rape and murder to simmering tenant-landlord encounters across the class divide. There are a handful involving childhood friends, one involving a strung-out crackhead who tries to hold up a convenience store with a steak knife. Coming from the downwardly mobile segment of the Tidewater, Virginia population, where crime might be the state of rest, Bottoms has been exposed to a lot of it.
There is a lot at stake in this book for Bottoms—not just reliving the crimes of friends and acquaintances, but maddening, personal, family trauma. The author is obviously not afraid of chasing the rabbit down the hole. In fact, this seems to be the very purpose of the book—to slip down the hole of memory and memory construction and into the very DNA of trauma. If you've ever wondered what Larry Brown's characters might have looked like under a specimen plate and 6-volt halogen microscope bulb, Pitiful Criminals is probably as close to that as you'll get.
And in common with Brown, the pity is central.
I'd throw that line down with the best of St. Augustine.
Only St. Augustine never had an illustrator. Bottoms does: W. David Powell.
Meaning this is a book you'll want to hold in your hands, ink, pages and all. Put out by Counterpoint in Berkeley. Stop by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and pick up a copy (God bless those bitchy, megalomaniac, American bookstore clerks), or if you're feeling like a lazy capitalist pig, order from Bezos.