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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
Jesse Sublett is a musician and writer from Austin, Texas. As a musician he is best known for his long-running rock trio, The Skunks. His essays and journalism have appeared in a wide range of publications, and he is also known for his mystery novels featuring a bass-playing sleuth named Martin Fender.
176 pgs., 978-1-62629-840-1, $19.99 paperback
March 9, 2015
1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime that Rocked the Capital is Jesse Sublett’s history of the Overton Gang, “Austin’s locally grown white trash mafia” (part of what is sometimes termed the “Dixie Mafia”). Tim Overton and his cohorts did their very best to control the criminal underground in Austin from approximately 1960 until 1968, when the gang went to trial on federal conspiracy charges of running an interstate bank robbery and prostitution ring. The Overton Gang of “safecrackers, pimps, drug dealers and Cadillac-obsessed hoodlums” did not content itself with Texas but went regional with “heavy connections to the Italian counterparts in the Big D, Cowtown, the Little Man in New Orleans, Biloxi, Oklahoma, Florida and Chicago.”
It is evident that Sublett conducted many interviews and exhaustive research. He is fond of his subject and it shows. The profiles of the individuals involved are interesting and include backstory, exposing the “dysfunctional backgrounds” that undoubtedly contributed to their career choices. For these reasons, it is a particular shame that the book could have done with a more careful edit and copyedit. It is intermittently disjointed and sometimes difficult to follow.
There is plenty of humor here, sometimes dry, sometimes sardonic. “It’s an important part of Austin history,” said Nick Kralj, former club owner and longtime Austin backstage historian. “You always had a connection with the outlaws and the lawyers and the politicians…because they all like the same things.” The author describes Corpus Christi as “the city on the Texas Gulf Coast named after the Son of God—ironically so, as in pre-European settlement times the area was inhabited by the Karankawa Indians, who were known to eat people.”
Sublett has a colloquial style that borders on the lyrical, which makes sense when you learn that his Austin band, the Skunks, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. For example: “Even before the “Summer of Love” in 1967, you only had to drive down the Drag to see Austin’s old, square corners melting into new, cooler shapes.” And: “In the fall of ’63, as Sean Connery showed Americans how slick double-zero agents committed government-sanctioned sabotage and murder, Dr. Timothy Leary was spreading the gospel of LSD, and Austin thug culture was still in an old school groove.”
Austin Gangsters is an engaging cultural history of Austin’s growing pains and class distinctions as it transformed from a “sleepy state capital and college town to the creative class/music mecca that we know today.” While engaging, it is cluttered with minutiae: dates, street addresses, lists of items and amounts stolen, and details unnecessary to telling the story well. You may feel as if you need an organizational chart. There is even some rather startling conjecture involving JFK assassination theories. Austin Gangsters belongs firmly in the Truth is Stranger than Fiction category.
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