By Bruce Springsteen
Illustrated by Frank Caruso
Simon & Schuster, $19.99, 56 pages
The Boss should stick to concerts and recordings.
His maiden voyage into authorship tacks between moral wretchedness and philosophical squalidness. “Aesop’s Fables” or “The Pilgrim’s Progress” need not worry about “Outlaw Pete” as a rival for readers.
The cartoonishly illustrated minibook, which concludes after a spare 420 words with no room for subplots, takes economy of expression to a new level. Let’s hope the Boss, unlike Charles Dickens, was not paid by the word.
The mind-boggling narrative of “Outlaw Pete” exalts sordidness, vice and puerility at every turn. It is unfit for any civilized creature.
Outlaw Pete, the anti-hero, is born a diminutive baby on the Appalachian trail. His putative parents are apparently airbrushed from the story to protect them from charges of child neglect or malparenting.
At three months — when most babies are still crawling and free from vice — Outlaw Pete robs a bank brandishing a gun. He exits the premises with a bag of dollars and coins shouting “I’M OUTLAW PETE! I’M OUTLAW PETE! CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
It strains credulity, however, to believe a three-month old baby would know, like Willie Sutton, that banks were where the money was. Child prodigies are one thing, but Outlaw Pete is in a league by himself.
At the time of his bank robbery, Outlaw Pete had not read a single book nor attended a single lecture. He was no autodidact at three months. How could he have then known the address and function of banks and currency?
While most babies do not begin to speak until nine months, Outlaw Pete incredibly is chorusing arpeggios of prose six months earlier. Further, if Outlaw Pete’s jaw-dropping precocity is to be believed, why does he stupidly confess his outlaw status to all the world, thus inviting arrest and detention? Indeed, he is jailed immediately after his bank robbery confession.
In sum, “Outlaw Pete” flunks the test of verisimilitude.
Our anti-hero is uncontrite about his felony to gratify an infantile craving for riches for the sake of riches. He was no Jean Valjean stealing bread for his sister’s starving family in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” Dante’s “Inferno” consigns the avaricious like Outlaw Pete to the fourth circle of hell. Yet Mr. Springsteen portrays him as morally unobjectionable.
After Outlaw Pete’s pre-kindergarten crime, we then encounter the larcenist at age 25 stealing a Mustang pony. No motivation for the crime is suggested. Like a sociopath, Outlaw Pete steals for the sake of stealing with neither remorse nor concern for the victims.
In an isolated moment of reflection, he confesses to Father Jesus, “I’m an outlaw, killer and a thief” who revels in homicide and weeping women wherever he goes. But Outlaw Pete hears no words of rebuke or moral disapprobation from above or below, or within. He is a savage devoid of any moral conscience. He experiences no terror like Macbeth upon seeing the murdered Banquo’s ghost.
In a shotgun marriage, Outlaw Pete weds a Navajo girl. We are left clueless about what brought them together: no courtship, no sonnets, no red roses, no sacred wedding vows. The circumstantial evidence shows Outlaw Pete’s matrimony as more the child of ulterior motives than of unsparing, selfless love — but it escapes any hint of reproach from Mr. Springsteen.
Despite his parental unfitness, Outlaw Pete irresponsibly fathers a nameless daughter, neurotically shouting for the umpteenth time that he is an outlaw. He murders a bounty hunter and then rides a horse for 40 days and nights cruelly depriving the animal of food, water and rest. His hegira-like journey concludes upon an icy mountaintop where Outlaw Pete commits suicide and murders his faithful equine — either by leaping over the edge or mindlessly freezing to death. He did not die like Sidney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities” to protect another.
His abandoned wife suffers no pangs for the murdered horse, but with the callousness of Lady Macbeth braids a piece of the murderer’s chaps into her hair.
The book ends anticlimactically with Outlaw Pete’s witless, morally vacuous wife fruitlessly summoning him to return from the dead to continue his despicable homicidal, larcenous, narcissistic life.
“Outlaw Pete” speaks volumes about Mr. Springsteen’s reprehensible moral compass. An icon at age 65 with influence over hundreds of millions, his book encourages moral baseness on virtually every page. Not a single praiseworthy trait is celebrated.
If Mr. Springsteen had character, he would withdraw “Outlaw Pete” from circulation and apologize.