The Sucker's Kiss: A Novel

The Sucker's Kiss: A Novel

by Alan Parker

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During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, seven-year-old Thomas Moran finds himself accidentally embarking on a career in pickpocketing. In the following years he becomes a master of his dubious craft and grows to manhood traveling from state to state across America.

His picaresque journey takes him through Prohibition and the Depression; into the desperate highs of the Hootchy-Kootchy and the dying vineyards of California, accompanied by an array of richly drawn characters frantically clutching at the crumbling American dream. Italian and Chinese gangsters, con artists, corrupt clergy, and speakeasy bootleggers all have a part to play in Tommy's destiny, but it is Effie, the great love of his life, who offers him the chance to change his future, and tries to save him from himself.

Colorfully written, engaging, and richly evocative of an extraordinary period in American history, The Sucker's Kiss marks the literary debut of master storyteller Alan Parker.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466862869
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/14/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 376 KB

About the Author

Alan Parker---director, writer, and producer---directed his first film, Bugsy Malone, in 1975. His other films include Midnight Express, Fame, Birdy, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, and Angela's Ashes. The numerous accolades for his work include nineteen British Film Academy awards, ten Golden Globe awards, and six Oscars. Parker was knighted in 2002 for services to the British film industry.

Read an Excerpt

The Sucker's Kiss

By Alan Parker

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Alan Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6286-9


I was seven years old and fast asleep when the earthquake hit San Francisco. It was 5.13 a.m. Wednesday 18 April 1906. My deputy and I were busy chasing Black Bart, the stagecoach robber, and a bunch of cowardly desperadoes out of town when we were interrupted by a massive jolt that woke me and a million others from our slumbers. It seemed that my whole world shook for the longest forty seconds in history. My mom, always prone to instant hysterics, for once had calmly gathered us together — myself, my two sisters, Gracie and Maeve — and walked quietly out of our wooden walk-up on Filbert Street and into the smoke.

Around us, people were yelling and running everywhere, grabbing at their belongings and screaming as if the end of the world had arrived. There were great jagged tears in the road where the cobbles had broken apart like a jigsaw.

But for the four of us, the whole of California could have snapped off and dropped into the sea like a cookie in a cup of coffee and we couldn't have cared less. We just watched with a strange detachment, as if it was meant to be, because, sure as shit, it had nothing to do with us.

I remember we stood there and watched as just a half-block away a gas main exploded and the only home I'd ever known cracked in half and collapsed like pasteboard into the street. Funnily enough, we weren't the least bit afraid or even sad — after all, let's face it, it wasn't our house. It was owned by the people who hounded us for our rent the second Tuesday of every month. The same jerks who had threatened to throw us out only the day before. My sisters and I invented names for them: Mr Fatty and Mrs Bones. Odd how we found them funny when their main purpose in life was to bring us misery. Not that they were real villains — they were just ordinary Joes following orders for five bucks a week, scaring little people like my mom and everyone else in our building. There's always something really sad about poor people bullying even poorer people. The real villains were the Nob Hill fat-guts who had sent them. Anyway, the pile of slatboard behind the dust cloud had nothing to do with us. If nothing is all you've got, then nothing is all you can lose.

The four of us just huddled together, kind of resigned to it all as we silently witnessed the panic and madness unfold in the choking smoke that swirled all around us. Whether my mother was in a state of shock or just plain brave, I'll never know — she simply shrugged and waved her hand. I suppose sad people can't get any sadder. Since my dad had died, whatever joy hadn't already been sucked out of her, and whatever morsels of happiness she had scraped up, she had passed on to us three kids.

A cop arrived and started screaming at people who were tossing their belongings out of the top-floor windows. An iron bed landed a foot away from Maeve and bounced up, smacking her in the face. Maeve was bleeding and a woman who said she was a nurse was tearing up bed sheets and using them as bandages.

We sat down on a broken curb and my mom told me to see if I could get Maeve a drink of some kind. I remember walking the streets with shattered glass crunching under my feet and the sound of bells everywhere. My handkerchief was pulled up high on my face to keep out the dust and the stench from the broken gas and sewer pipes. All around was chaos, devastation and hysteria and yet I was oddly oblivious to it all. With my handkerchief over my face I felt like some bank robber in a dime novel.

It was as if the whole city had burst every blood vessel in its body. The thick man-made skin of concrete had violently ruptured and the city's guts had vomited onto the pavement. There were gas pipes, water pipes and buckled iron streetcar rails all ripped out of the concrete and left twisted in the air as if they had escaped from some subterranean snake charmer's basket.

A man wearing a butcher's apron and an army helmet was handing out free coffee from the broken window of what used to be Williams' furniture store. He was brewing it in an old tin bathtub, stirring away with a broken broom handle. I nervously asked for four cups. The man in the apron said the first one was free but if I wanted more than one then it would be two cents a mug. And so I walked away with one cup and a lesson: nothing's free in America.

It was then that a huge fireball exploded two streets away and flames leaped sixty feet high. As everyone else ran away, I did the opposite; I couldn't help myself as I ran towards the free show of a real-life disaster. With morbid curiosity, I stood and watched as dead and injured people were dragged out and laid on the sidewalk. Mesmerized, I gingerly tiptoed through the lines of charred, naked bodies. I was seven years old and had never even seen my sisters undressed, so the sight of these curious, dick-less people with fat, fleshy breasts was beyond my comprehension.

My biology lesson was interrupted as an ambulance wagon almost knocked me down and nurses ran to attend the injured. A man — I guess he was a doctor — took off his coat and handed it to me as he rushed into the building. Suddenly the crazy panic all around me seemed to have vanished in the smoke. I stood staring at the immaculate wool jacket with its silky blue lining. Stroking the smooth satin, I felt a bulge and casually took a peek inside. It was a wallet stuffed with bills. Now, surely I couldn't take this man's wallet — after all, he was selflessly helping others. He was probably, at that very moment, even as I stood there, tearing at his own shirt to make a tourniquet to save some poor soul's life. But it was there and then that I realized that nothing's free in America because everything belongs to someone. And from my brief experience in life I noticed that the problem was that everything generally belonged to someone else. I concluded, standing there in the smoke and the wailing, choking grief of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, that this was how things were and probably always have been. What stuck in my throat was that even though it was surely wrong, it didn't matter two bits because that was the way of the world and right then that world had come tumbling down all around us. My mom, a little out of touch with the principles of capitalism, had always told us that Jesus said, 'Everything belongs to everybody,' and so I took it upon myself there and then to start sharing things around. It was as though I was being given a sign from heaven. The sign said, 'sucker', and I felt not even a teeny twinge of guilt or the slightest sense of wrongdoing. No, to tell the truth, I felt ... well, just great. I deftly pocketed the doctor's wallet and, taking care to smooth the blue satin lining, I hung the coat neatly on the ambulance door handle. Let's face it, I could have filched the guy's coat as well, but you have to have certain principles in life.

With the crisp bills I managed to buy a loaf of bread, coffee for my mom and sodas for Maeve, Gracie and myself. The cops were telling everyone to move on and head towards the Embarcadero. There must have been thousands of us being frog-marched down Filbert Street as the fire-steamer engines raced past us — the firemen frantically roping their bells for us to get out of the way. People walked with their personal belongings stacked high on their heads and mothers clutched babies to their breasts. It was an odd, funereal procession as everyone ambled along in tongue-tied shock.

Suddenly the somber march was interrupted as people began to scream and run in all directions. A giant tawny bull came charging down Stockton Street, pursued by a gang of about thirty people. Without thinking, I joined in the chase after the terrified animal.

At the crossroads on Jackson a Chinese guy ran out into the street and threw a huge machete, which sank deep into the fleshy flank of the unfortunate beast. This slowed the animal down a little but still it galloped bravely onward. There was a trail of blood that must have bled the wretched animal dry because in Portsmouth Square it stopped running and turned to face us all. Suddenly the mob became very quiet, as mobs do when faced with imminent danger. The bull stared straight at me as it stood there scraping its hoof in a puddle of its own blood. What could I do? Say sorry, it wasn't my machete? The Chinese guys were defiantly strolling up to the exhausted, wounded animal like they were matadors in Spain or someplace. Just then a shot rang out and a mounted cop killed the bull stone-dead with a bullet to the side of the head. Our collective oohs and aahs were short-lived as the very same cop galloped towards us, firing his revolver into the air. The mob split in all directions and I ran down Clay until my lungs gave out and I collapsed onto my knees, coughing up soot and dust into the gutter. A soldier gave me a swig from his flask, which tasted like the water from the rusty barrel in our yard. It made me feel a whole lot better except for one thing: I realized I had lost my mom and sisters. I was on my own.

I chased up Telegraph Hill and climbed down the Filbert Street steps to the Embarcadero. The Ferry Building tower was still standing, although a little wobbly, and it was a beacon for the thousands of families elbowing their way to the ferries, hoping to get across to the safety of the East Bay. It was hopeless and there was no way I could find my mom for now. I decided to make the most of my predicament and as I was pushed around in the crush my hand slipped into places where it didn't belong.

* * *

For the rest of that day I dashed all over San Francisco, helping out wherever I could by holding people's coats. With a handkerchief over my face to keep out the dust and smoke and the stink of the shattered sewers, I wasn't just a kid, I was Billy the Kid — I was Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, Jesse James, Black Bart — I was Terrible Tommy Moran, the human coat-hanger. I had so many wallets that I couldn't stuff them all in my pockets. It was as if somehow old God up there had given me permission.

The army had pitched thirty rows of tents in Jefferson Square and that night I billeted with a battalion of the 22nd Infantry who had come in from Fort Dowell on Angel Island.

The winds blowing in from the ocean had suddenly picked up, sending the red-hot cinders high in the air as the heat from the fires created its own gusts and the scorching draughts of air whipped the flames into a frenzy. That first night was so bright with flames that it seemed like day. I fell asleep wrapped in a smelly, mildewed army blanket. In one day I had lost my innocence and gained enough dubious self-confidence to last a lifetime.


The next day, the fires were raging out of control. I headed to our old church of Saints Peter and Paul on Filbert to see if anyone I knew was there, but the flames from Chinatown had licked along Powell and sadly the church was no more.

It was no surprise that Chinatown had gone first, after all, it was a tinderbox of jumbled slat and board and didn't even have a fire station of its own. There were eighty fire stations in all of San Francisco and someone in City Hall joked that the twenty thousand Chinamen who lived there could piss the fire out, for all they cared. Chinatown survived for barely six hours before everyone was evacuated to the army barracks out at the Presidio, including a line of gaunt-faced hopheads who had puffed their pipes of opium on their way to heaven and awoken to the madness of hell.

The National Guardsmen were the worst for looting. They were foraging amongst the Chinatown ashes with gunnysacks full of melted jewelry as they systematically ransacked the place, or what was left of it. Mayor Schmitz had issued a proclamation that the police and army should shoot on sight anyone found looting, which was a joke because these guys with the gunnysacks were the army.

I saw a bunch of kids who had been caught stealing on Powell. They were roped together and being hauled down to the wharf. Around their necks they had cardboard signs saying, 'I am a thief.' Can you believe that? It was a pitiful sight but it didn't put me off for a moment. After all, I was taking wallets from people's live bodies so you couldn't call that looting, and let's face it, if anyone was going to wear a cardboard sign saying, 'I am a thief,' how about the National Guard and most of the Board of Supervisors at City Hall?

There was another guy hanging out of a broken jewelry store window who had been bayoneted to death and the soldiers had just left him there as a warning to others. He still had a silver coffee pot in his hand. By sunup, that too would be stolen.

The firestorm was now engulfing half the city and the firemen, police and military were helpless because the quake had ruptured all the city's main water lines and the central supply pipes from San Andreas Lake and Crystal Springs had been shattered in a thousand places. A navy unit was desperately hooking up a mile of hose to bring water from the bay at Meigg's Wharf to Jackson Square.

I remember the air being full of smells: smoke, dust, gas, sewer shit, dynamite and the worst smell of all, which the soldiers said was rotting and charred flesh. The army had started to blow up buildings to try to create a firebreak on Van Ness and they had even brought in artillery to shell the buildings across the street. I loved watching that, it was like being slap in the middle of a real war, except there was no one firing back. I helped a guy to calm the horses that were getting real spooked by all the hot cinders floating in the air. Everyone said that the army seemed to be creating more problems than they were solving.

At the Palace Hotel they were trying to save the building but the top ten floors were already in flames, which seemed kind of dumb to me. Down below they had been emptying the kitchen larders. Originally they had offered up their famous fruit flans but as the flames crept down the building they decided to give away the contents of their wine cellar, which attracted a good deal larger crowd. I managed to grab a bottle, which apparently was kind of special, and a guy gave me a dollar for it. To be accurate, he gave me five dollars because I had my hand in his back pocket a second after he put away his wallet.

* * *

On the third day I attached myself to a column of soldiers from Fort Mason who had been sent to guard the old US Mint building on Fifth and Mission. They said there were rumors that it was about to be attacked by an armed gang and I was really looking forward to that.

A few soldiers in the column were also detailed to guard a whole bunch of convicts from the city jail. Once the flames had reached the building next door, the jailers had promptly quit for Oakland, leaving the prisoners locked in their cells to await their own barbecue. The prisoners were now sitting manacled in the street, waiting for an army truck to arrive. There were only four troopers to guard them, so the sergeant handed me a carbine and told me to point it in the direction of the convicts. As I could hardly lift the rifle, I think the prisoners were more concerned that I'd pull the trigger by mistake — which is what very nearly happened when an explosion on Market whooshed a giant cloud of hot embers in our direction. I dropped the rifle as one hit me in the eye and I fell to the ground clutching my face. Boy, did it hurt. But the convicts didn't run away. Instead they all ran towards this screaming kid wriggling on the sidewalk. A soldier and two convicts put ointment on my eye and bandages around my head.

A mounted cop galloped me down to a refugee camp on Valencia, where he dumped me at the front of a soup-kitchen line that was six blocks long. The people standing there were rich and poor, all mixed together, hoping for a handout. That was the crazy thing about the quake — it was a great equalizer because just about everything had tumbled down or burned, whether it was a swanky hotel or a slatboard slum. But right then I couldn't give a heck because I thought my entire eye was on fire.

A pushy Salvation Army woman grabbed my arm and dragged me to a tent where they were relocating people and lost children.

'Where's your family?'

'Don't know.'

'Are you lost?'

'No, my mom and sisters are.' I let out a yell as the pain pierced my eyeball.

'Does your eye hurt?' she asked.

I nodded.

'How much does it hurt?'

'Like fuck, lady,' I answered. No one said that word at home, but for the last three days it was the only word I ever heard. I think I shocked the Sally Army lady.

'Like what?'

'A lot,' I shouted.

'We're going to have to get you to the hospital in Oakland.'


Excerpted from The Sucker's Kiss by Alan Parker. Copyright © 2003 Alan Parker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, seven-year-old Thomas Moran finds himself accidentally embarking on a career in pickpocketing. In the following years he becomes a master of his dubious craft and grows to manhood traveling from state to state across America.
His picaresque journey takes him through Prohibition and the Depression; into the desperate highs of the Hootchy-Kootchy and the dying vineyards of California, accompanied by an array of richly drawn characters frantically clutching at the crumbling American dream. Italian and Chinese gangsters, con artists, corrupt clergy, and speakeasy bootleggers all have a part to play in Tommy's destiny, but it is Effie, the great love of his life, who offers him the chance to change his future, and tries to save him from himself.
Colorfully written, engaging, and richly evocative of an extraordinary period in American history, The Sucker's Kiss marks the literary debut of a master storyteller.

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