The Sucker's Kiss
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The Sucker's Kiss

by Alan Parker

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From the highly acclaimed director of Midnight Express and The Commitments comes a sparkling story of a pickpocket's odyssey through America. During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, seven-year-old Thomas Moran finds himself accidentally embarking on a career in pick-pocketing. In the following years he becomes a master of his dubious craft and


From the highly acclaimed director of Midnight Express and The Commitments comes a sparkling story of a pickpocket's odyssey through America. During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, seven-year-old Thomas Moran finds himself accidentally embarking on a career in pick-pocketing. 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 speak-easy 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Alan Parker is a master of historical perspective. In The Sucker's Kiss, he evokes early twentieth-century San Francisco with all the grit and ferment of a West Coast William Kennedy.” —T. C. Boyle

“Alan Parker has written an engaging, entertaining romp. . . . His rogue's story is funny, ebullient, and ultimately poignant.” —Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley

“Memo to Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild: Please go on strike more often. Why? Well, while you were picketing and protesting, a director and writer, Alan Parker, decided to write a hell of a novel, The Sucker's Kiss. You might expect Sir Alan to take as his territory England, particularly North London. He might have written of highwaymen and he chose instead the forty-eight states. There goes his picaresque hero, Thomas Moran, goaded into pickpocketing by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. After that the sky is the limit and two oceans his borders.” —Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes

“Triumphant . . . Parker has created a splendid character, an amiable, amoral rogue whom the reader cannot help rooting for.” —Daily Mail (U.K.)

“A gripping, entertaining, and finely wrought story to match the best of his films.” —The Independent on Sunday (U.K.)

“A thrilling and enjoyable read, filmic and brilliantly paced. As you might expect, Parker is a gifted storyteller.” —Scotland on Sunday (U.K.)

“A vivid, colorful, fast-paced, literary, and cinematic work, full of strong characterizations and wonderfully textured prose.” —Nottingham Evening Post (U.K.)

T. C. Boyle

Alan Parker is a master of historical perspective. In The Sucker's Kiss, he evokes early twentieth-century San Francisco with all the grit and ferment of a West Coast William Kennedy.
Kirkus Reviews
During the first two decades of the 20th century, a young pickpocket sets out across America on a journey that doesn't take the reader very far. In his first fiction, British director Parker (the films Midnight Express and The Commitments) follows Thomas Moran, a wily, ingratiating lad from San Francisco whose earthy observations sometimes amuse but too often suggest late-night college bull sessions. Twice in the first chapter, Moran observes that "nothing's free in America"-how true, how true. An obstreperous youth, Moran flees a Catholic correctional home, leaving his mother and two sisters behind as he becomes a vagabond pickpocket-and why not? As Moran says, "The mudsnoots on Wall Street, like me, had their hands in everyone's pockets." The first half of Parker's smoothly written, lightly amusing narrative offers some effective, picaresque moments, as when the crowd at a circus lynches the elephant that trampled a spectator. But less than trenchant are other episodes, prefaced in the style of Dos Passos with brief accounts of national events linked superficially to what follows. From a report detailing the successful integration of escaped mental patients into society, Moran concludes, "Who's to know who's crazy?" The second half is rather uninspired in plot, and in form seems awkwardly joined to the episodic first half. Moran returns to California and enters in a romantic relationship with Effie, a grape grower's daughter. As Prohibition hurts profits, since demand for grapes is low, Moran tries to help the vineyard owner. The effort entangles Moran with the Italian mob, the Chinese mob, and the Catholic Church mob. Dealing with the latter, Moran confronts something he-and thereader-suspected all along about Effie. More disillusioned than ever, a melancholy Moran heads back on the road. As journey novels go, this one is pretty much a Cook's tour of early-20th-century America.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt


Why she loved me, I'll never know.

She always said I had morals that were as unreliable as the Vallejo Ferry and just about as well grounded. I always kidded her that she had hair the color of burnt chestnuts and legs of deepest purple. She wore frocks of printed voile and underwear of "crepe de Chine." She was beautiful. She was Effie. She was the love of my life.

My hand stroked the crumpled brown paper bag nestling between my knees, my fingers following the contours of the bottle inside. It was a good wine and I looked forward to pulling the cork and sharing a glass or two with Effie. Out of the rear window of the bus, the San Francisco skyline disappeared behind the hills and I caught myself looking at my reflection in the glass. I wiped away the sweat from my freshly shaved upper lip with my thumb. The snazzy, but seriously phony, Java silk tie looked awkward, out of place and too good for the cream shirt with the fraying collar. I touched the thin cut on my crooked chin; the blunt razor, like my wardrobe, had been courtesy of the Salvation Army. The unstoppable trickle of blood dribbled downwards as I dabbed at the torn skin and hummed to myself the Sally Army anthem: 'Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.' Such a dumb song, why the heck should I remember it now?

The drizzle outside streaked the bus window like tears. 'The more tears, the greater the magic,' Effie once said. It took me a long time to understand that one.

The police reports on me, of which there are many, say my name is Thomas Patrick Moran. The files always say, 'AKA: Butterfingers.' I was a cannon. A dip. Apit worker. A pickpocket. A thief. And, as immodest as it is shameful to admit, I was the best. Some say they called me Butterfingers because I could slide in and out of a sucker's purse like melted butter. Some say they called me Butterfingers because there were days when my hands shook so badly from needing a drink that I couldn't even hook a wallet from a stiff on a mortuary slab. My job took me to every state in the union, and it's also true that I got pinched in almost every one of them. But I took pride in my work. However humble or pathetic one's labor, you have to take pride in it.

Sure, I admit that there were times when I was lonelier than a lighthouse keeper because I always had to keep my head down for fear of being recognized. Most of the time cracks in the sidewalk, turned-up pant cuffs, worn boots, silver-buckled pumps and pools of p iss were more familiar to me than sunshine peeping through a storm cloud. But sometimes I would look at the train wreck of a person in the mirror and realize that I was the same as everyone else trying to make a buck in America. I was no different from the mudsnoots on Wall Street who, like me, had their hands in everyone's pockets. Maybe I even slept a little easier because, gypsy thief that I was, at least I was honest about my profession. Make no mistake, there's only one map of America, it's green and has an etching of a dead president's face on it.

I never knew the real world because it was the world of other people. The people I stole from. They had nothing in common with me because, mostly, my only intimate human contact was stroking the lining of a stranger's coat on my way to stealing their pocketbook. I had drifted across America in the company of the abandoned, the dispossessed and the d amned, my inner compass taking me east, west, north and south, always guiding me somewhere and mostly leaving me nowhere. But lost, as I always knew I had been, I never realized that I too was one of the d amned. That is, until I met Effie, and she taught me that there could be more to a future than just another tomorrow.

They say that in the pocket-picking game the hardest hook to pull is to take something from someone, face to face, staring them straight in the eye. It's called the sucker's kiss and Effie gave it to me--smack on the lips, you might say--right there in a crummy root-and-toot cafe in San Francisco.


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 s hit, 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.

Copyright (c) 2003 by Alan Parker

Meet 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.

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