On first glance, much about Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld is suspect: the absurd length (746 pages—126 pages longer than Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography of Leonardo da Vinci), the eponymous title, the gushing opening passage, and author Michael P. Daley’s upfront warning that much of the narrative relies on his subject’s memory. It all suggests myth-making hagiography.
Fortunately, Daley is a perceptive, tenacious reporter, and though he’s clearly enamored with his subject—a largely forgotten character in Oklahoma’s rich drama of crime and punishment, whom Daley first learned about through Tulsa’s reluctant outlaw statesman, Larry Clark—his meticulous research (41 pages of endnotes, 30 pages of selected sources) and narrative clarity elevate what could have been, by Daley’s own admission in the book’s preface, a work of merely “anthropological lore” to a vividly rendered portrait of a man who made his own rules, and then had to live by them.
Daley opens with a scene worthy of a Nicholas Ray film: In a packed Tulsa courtroom in 1948, 18-year-old Bobby BlueJacket, already a seasoned rumbler, robber, and Army veteran, prepares to stand trial for the murder of Bill Klein, a 21-year-old athlete. BlueJacket gunned down Klein with a sawed-off during a parking lot spat in front of a hundred teenage witnesses, and many of those teenagers were now squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder.
Bobby BlueJacket’s hair glistened like a freshly waxed sedan. His eyes were ice and his face was Hollywood handsome, but that sweep of shiny black hair was all you could see from the back of the Tulsa courtroom.
Daley’s swooning descriptions of BlueJacket—his “impressive fashion sense,” his “stoic” presence—reflect the awe of the courtroom’s captive gallery of reporters and rubberneckers eager get a glimpse of the kid prosecutors painted as a “deranged, homicidal gangster.”
Within a few pages, though, Daley pulls back from the sensational romance of the scene and dives into the ethnographic context that made BlueJacket—the time, the place, and the conditions that led first to a life of crime, then to a stint as a respected prison journalist, and finally to political activism as a Shawnee elder. It’s a compelling read, full of violence and heart.
Still, the question lingers—what justifies such an exhaustive tome on one man whose legacy of crime and redemption is but a regional footnote?
The answer is in Daley’s sense of the dramatic, his consideration of history, place and context, and his devotion to rooting out the truth, as best he can, within the drama. With BlueJacket’s story, Daley deconstructs the outlaw’s myth to show the complicated human beneath it, and the place and people that made him.
It’s a fascinating tale, told with gusto and guts, and is probably mostly true, too.
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