While looking for something to read on my phone a while back, I remembered artist friend Mark Wheatley saying “The Mucker” was his favorite Burroughs novel. It’s one I hadn’t read, and a free copy was available on iBooks. It even came with the second Mucker novel, though not labeled as such, just called “Book Two.”
Billy Byrne is unlike any Burroughs protagonist I can think of. I hesitate to even call him a hero, because for most of the book he’s anything but. Growing up in the slums of Chicago, Billy is a tough, uneducated street brawler, gangster, and small-time criminal. He’s had an awful upbringing, and seems to hate just about everyone except a few gang buddies. He has lots of enemies, and when one of them frames him for a murder he didn’t commit, Billy has to flee Chicago. He ends up in San Francisco where he gets Shanghied into the crew of a disreputable sailing ship heading for the South Pacific. Billy hates his situation, and continues to act with cruelty to those around him, but the rest of the crew isn’t much better, and Billy gradually learns to be a sailor, and doesn’t mind the hard work. The ship is headed for a kind of piracy on the high seas, they intend to kidnap the daughter of a very rich American businessman sailing their way in his private yacht. The kidnapping takes place amid lots of confusion and counter-plotting among the crew. Then a huge storm hits, and both vessels are in trouble and nearly sunk. The pirate ship ends up on a small island far from shipping lanes, where they land and make camp. Billy Byrne is among a group of mutineers who set off into the jungle planning to leave the ship for good, but they’re attacked by natives, and soon find their trouble is only beginning.
The other main character of the book is Barbara Harding, the kidnapped heiress. Despite his hatred of those with money and privilege, Billy finds himself falling for Barbara, and when she’s kidnapped by the natives, he goes through great hardship and danger to rescue her. Billy and Barbara end up spending some months on a small island in a river in the jungle. Here, she gradually civilizes Billy, and her love causes him to rethink his life and values, reforming his bad ways. Eventually they are rescued by Barbara’s father, after lots of difficulties and return to New York, but Billy knows he’s not a man who can aspire to a girl like Barbara, and even though she says she loves him, he pushes her toward the man she was formerly planning to marry, after finding success in a new boxing career.
In the second book, Billy tries to clear his name in Chicago, but finds it only gets him a long prison term. On the way to prison, Billy escapes, and eludes the law, hopping freight trains going west and south. He befriends a well-educated and poetic hobo named Bridge, and after some close escapes from pursuit, the two end up in Mexico, where the country is overrun by bandit groups like the one headed by Pancho Villa. All kinds of trouble ensues, even when Billy joins one of the bandit groups himself. Before long Barbara Harding and her father are back in the story, visiting a ranch they own in the territory, and the plot runs rampant through all kinds of bandit attacks, a bank robbery, attacks on the ranch, kidnapping, Indian fighting, and so on. Eventually Billy and Barbara get together, even though Bridge is also in love with Barbara, leaving things tense right to the end.
I enjoyed the first book, even though the character of Billy didn’t appeal to me all that much. There’s enough adventure, action and character development to keep it interesting, even when it gets melodramatic. I didn’t like the second book as much. The plot seems convoluted, is full of unlikely coincidences, and gets tiresome. Billy’s new-found goodness is always set aside when a fight is handy, and there’s a lot of racial stereotyping in Mexico. In all, I’m glad I read it, but can only recommend the first book.