For a century Butch Cassidy has been the subject of legends about his life and death, spawning a small industry of myth makers and a major Hollywood film. Charles Leerhsen sorts out fact from fiction to find the real Butch Cassidy, who is far more complicated and fascinating than legend has it.
Though most people associate outlaw Butch Cassidy with Paul Newman's performance in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Leerhsen...offers a fuller portrait in this entertaining biography of an American legend ... While not as detailed as Kerry Ross Boren's Butch Cassidy: The Untold Story, Leerhsen's biography is an accessible, quick read that is sure to delight fans of the genre.
Mr. Leerhsen himself drinks deeply from the watering hole of myth ... Mr. Leerhsen asserts that, contrary to the less-flattering portraits offered by scholarly 'sourpusses,' Cassidy was 'a good guy, a curiously good guy, a friend to you and the bane of your oppressors—a kind of hero, really, at a time when something like war was brewing between the haves and the have-nots of the intermountain West.' Alas, little in Butch Cassidy supports such a generous assessment ... Mr. Leerhsen is a dogged researcher, having pored over the voluminous published material about Cassidy’s life, and he tracks his subject like a Pinkerton ... Some in his audience will no doubt revel in these you-are-there set pieces. But one suspects that Mr. Leerhsen included them at least as much to establish his bona fides with fellow Cassidistas (a group that appears supremely welcoming of those who share their fixation) ... Other readers, by contrast, may be put off by the author’s folksy narrative style, which conjures Waylon Jennings’s role as the balladeer in the Dukes of Hazzard television show. Like Jennings, whose cheesy voiceovers introduced each episode and eased viewers into and out of commercial breaks, Mr. Leerhsen peppers the text with cringeworthy asides ... Mr. Leerhsen’s approach to his subject is overly intimate, leading to unsubstantiated claims on matters such as Cassidy’s populist streak, which the author raises occasionally but largely ignores. In the end, it seems that Cassidy—like most outlaws—was interested in the redistribution of wealth to the extent that it wound up in his own saddlebags ... The pre-eminent banditologist Eric Hobsbawm argued that the fascination with outlaws often says less about the brigands themselves than the societies that lionize them. Hence the legend of (the possibly fictional) Joaquín Murrieta illuminates the dispossession of California Mexicans during the Gold Rush, just as the stories about Jesse James open a window onto lingering partisan resentments in the aftermath of the Civil War. Mr. Leerhsen offers no such direction in understanding the enduring appeal of Butch Cassidy, who—one is left to conclude—is famous mostly for being famous, rescued by Hollywood from creeping oblivion. While that might offer little insight into the social conditions of the turn-of-the-century West, it speaks volumes about the peculiar American obsession with celebrity.
A quirky subgenre of narrative history has emerged in recent years that explores the lives of iconic heroes of Hollywood westerns. A good example is Charles Leerhsen’s worthy biography ... The new genre has its limitations, and Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw can’t escape them ... Leerhsen...amply demonstrates that cowboys are in his corral. He has taken the trouble to read the literature and track down the living descendants of the Wild Bunch in order to get the slippery details as straight as he can ... Yet even an investigator as diligent as Leerhsen can’t get close enough to the outlaw or lay his hands on enough original material to bring Cassidy, 'a kind of backwater Anthony Bourdain,' to life. And that is too bad because Leerhsen does a fine job of recounting the events surrounding the heists—like the gang’s use of fresh horses spread out along their escape routes so that they could outgallop whatever lawmen were trailing along in dogged pursuit, thus stealing a trick from the old Pony Express.