2016: 44. Elmer McCurdy

“In December of 1976, Detective Daniel P. Sallmen of the Long Beach Police Department arrived at the office of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner holding a severed arm as if it were a baguette in a brown paper bag.”

Elmer McCurdy: the Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, Mark Svenvol

This book is such a missed opportunity.  It has a fascinating premise, but the writing is so ham-handed that it drowns the story.  Seriously, the hardcover is only 312 pages (including an index!), but it took me forever to read because the read was such a slog. 

It’s a true fiction account of the life and death of Elmer McCurdy.  Basically, one day during the filming and episode of the Six Million Dollar Man in an old amusement park the crew knocked down a skeleton, only to find it was a real human corpse.  Eventually, the corpse was able to be tracked back to Elmer McCurdy, a very very small time outlaw operating in Kansas, who died in a shootout in 1911.  The story of how his corpse became a mummy, what happened to it between 1911 and 1970, how people discovered out it was him, and what that all has to say about America and the West is just a great opportunity for a ripping, yet introspective, yarn.

Unfortunately, Mark Svenvold is the one who chose to tell it, and he is just too much.  There is room here for some ruminating on America and the West and the human condition, but Svenvold writes like a turgid cowboy poet, so much so that the story gets completely lost in the mumbo jumbo.  I kept reading, because I wanted to find out what happened, but what you really want here is a well written New Yorker article, where someone cut out 80% of the adjectives.  A real disappointment - McCurdy’s is a crazy story that doesn’t get the telling it deserves.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017