Outlaw: Author Armed and Dangerous
Contra Mundum Press, NY, NY 2020
264 pp. Paper, $20.00
“If my professor was Michael Mann, Jean-Pierre Melville was my technical advisor” (p. 80).
Most of us come to crime vicariously. We seek it out in a film or a novel, happy that the distance between us and it magnifies the event with the kind of dramatics we can’t get enough of. Like the heat of sex and the compassion of love, crime, however it comes as fiction, has an ever hungry audience. But what of the real thing told verbatim by a cunning master thief and cinephile, who chose “Doc McCoy” for a sobriquet -- the character that Steve McQueen played in The Getaway -- and for whom such films taught him just how to do it and, for a good long time, get away with it. His name is Rédoine Faïd.
Born and raised by Algerian immigrant parents in a Paris banlieue during the 1970-1980s, Faïd recounts his evolution from petty neighborhood mall thief to fulsome computer then jewelry store thief. Next come banks and, most spectacularly, armored car thievery. Along the way, he refines his skills in disposition, hardware, planning, and execution; the latter notable for his decision to avoid bloodshed and physical violence against workers. Eluding the common vices that criminals exhibit, from braggadocio to the kind of exhibitionism that easy money fuels, he otherwise falls prey to the thrill of the event. Once in there is no way out: “Without realizing it, we’d become dependent on the adrenalin rush you get from robbing …. We were addicts. On vacation, we’d have anxiety attacks like we were jonesing” (p. 58). Capture and conviction finally come, of course, in 1998 at the ripe age of 26. That doesn’t faze Faïd. His two prison escapes command the front page of major French dailies, and draw about him the flavor of myth, finally as “Public enemy #1.”
Who can resist a convict whose 2018 escape from the central penitentiary at Réau, southeast of Paris, begins with a hijacked helicopter suddenly landing in the open prison courtyard. Faïd’s three accomplices -- armed with Kalashnikovs, smoke bombs and a power saw – free him from the visitor’s center where Faïd is waiting, and in minutes they fly off.
As of end February 2020, now back in jail, Faïd is still big news. As France 24 reports, his hunger strike to support an appeal of his conviction for a 2011 armored car robbery near Arras, France is quite in character. The lead line reads this way: “notorious French gangster wants his day in court – on his terms.”
Criminal autobiographies, as this is in part, hold our interest as much by way of the narrative – what happened, when, and how – as by what the narrative can tell us of the larger issues in play, psychologically, socially, culturally, and economically. Composed in interview format, there is little question that Faïd is selective in what he tells and what he doesn’t. Nonetheless, his recounting highlights the issues just noted and is true to his aim, which he expresses early on: “I don’t want to justify myself. But I do want to take down some of the stereotypes that never seem to go away” (pg. 4).
Of interest here as well is the intersection of film and the criminal film genre with a life directly informed, tutored, and inspired by such films. In this sense, the cliché, speaking truth to fiction, is not so much turned on its head as its two terms turned into each other. The difference, which remains, is that Faïd is not a character in a crime film but a criminal who, as he came up, honed his professional prowess, stole millions, lived as he wished but without ostentation, and fascinated the French public by his audacity, daring, and intelligence.
For us in the U.S., as it is at this moment, tipped into a pandemic and political conflict that a major election will not and cannot resolve, the book acts as a counterweight. And for a moment as I read the book I was thankful that it’s author revealed himself and the life he led with precision, sobriety, and style – values that the translation brings out perfectly.