Years ago, I was living in Atlanta, working nights in a bar and spending most of my days reading and writing stories. One rainy day, I went down to the local library to get something to read. The library was full of homeless people. I guess they were there to get out of the rain, but the librarian would kick out anyone who wasn’t actively using the library. So all these guys had books, and they were reading. I walked around the tables of homeless guys, and some of those guys had some pretty heavy books—I remember one was reading Sartre—and their eyes were roaming back and forth over the lines of the books. It was a cool sight. I wanted to talk to them, to find the literature professor in the rough, to find the one homeless dude who knew more about the classics than a hundred grad students put together.
When I got this review copy of Beggars of Life, I thought back to that rainy Atlanta day because the author, Jim Tully, was a “library bum.” He hopped trains and wandered around the Midwest, having some wild adventures and always staying on top of his reading. His writing reflects that. In some ways, he’s got that classic nineteenth-century way of pinning philosophy on a bum the way Thoreau would find a depth of thought in a lake in the woods. In other ways, he’s a Steven Crane knockoff, always going for the raw, gritty, and real to nail home his themes. Mostly, though, Tully is a great storyteller. He started hopping trains when he was fourteen, and Beggars of Life, which was originally published in 1924, follows his early years. Tully writes about working for a 500 lb. sideshow dancer, “Amy, the Beautiful Fat Girl,” who kept him in booze and food as long as he operated her spotlight and told her stories. He writes about the time he was travelling with a kid who’d had way too hard of a time in juvie, and they got jumped by two railroad cops. Tully and his friend left the cops handcuffed to a tree, and, for the rest of the summer, hobos had a hell of a time travelling by train through those parts. Tully also talks about the clever ways he’d make money, like the time when he and his buddy were hired to vote repeatedly in a local Chicago election. Tully has a funny style to his description, too. He’ll say things like, “she poured me the drink. I tossed it down like a politician.” In that way, you can see him as the predecessor to John Fante or Charles Bukowski. The best parts of the book, though, come when Tully is just honest, like when he tells the story of a prostitute with whom he had a long affair, and who supported him for a while. She up and left one day, and all Tully can do is write out his story and end up by saying, “I hope greatly that she may read these lines.”
Apparently, Beggars of Life is the first of five books that Tully wrote about his hobo days. AK Press has done us all a great service by putting this back into print. I only hope that they follow it up with his other four books. –Sean (AK Press, 674 A 23rd St., Oakland, CA 94612)