An American Tragedy is the name of a very long, dense classic novel, published in 1925, about a man whose fierce but over-reaching desire to enjoy his share in the American dream ends in violence.
This novel, by Theodore Dreiser, was based on the true-crime 1906 drowning death of a single young pregnant woman at an upstate New York lake resort, and the subsequent arrest and prosecution of her lover. An Academy Award-winning 1951 film adaptation, A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor at their most beautiful, expertly depicts the young man’s yearning for material comforts and social status, and then his desperation when he feels those aspirations slipping away.
Clift’s (and Dreiser’s) protagonist comes from the poor side of a family. In A Place in the Sun, he goes to work in his rich uncle’s swimsuit factory, gets involved with a fellow factory worker (played by Shelly Winters), impregnates her, then tries to dump her when he meets and becomes involved with the town’s most desirable young debutante (Taylor). When Winters’ shopgirl presses him to marry her, he says OK, but let’s first take a romantic rowboat trip around a lake. Needless to say, she doesn’t make it back to shore, and he winds up arrested, put on trial for her murder, convicted, and then sentenced to death. Clift’s performance in the film and Dreiser’s long but riveting account of the police interrogation and trial testimony of the protagonist–in some ways, an American everyman–offer fascinating portraits of human desperation and a person’s descent into reckless, self-centered, cruel criminality.
I couldn’t help but think about the Dreiser book and A Place in the Sun (one of my favorites) while reading Friday’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle about what led up to the shootout last Thursday night between an Alamo contractor and a jewelry store owner in his hometown.
Thomas Paul Bennett was not a hungry young man, but a man in mid-life, 50 years old. And, apparently, like a lot of men and women in our community he was hungry and perhaps felt entitled to a certain way of life. And he possibly got way in over his head, while seeming to have acquired the 21st century version of material comforts and social status that Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths was desperately seeking. Bennett had his own business, a wife, a son and a daughter, and a $2.5 million home in a cul-de-sac in one of the East Bay’s toniest zip codes.
But according to what prosecutor Bruce Flynn told the Chronicle’s Henry K. Lee, Bennett was on the verge of losing his home—and, one wonders, much more—so, he made a plan to rob a man who had been a friend “in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.”
On last Thursday evening, Bennett, armed with three guns—including a .22-caliber weapon outfitted with a homemade silencer—drove to Oscar Herrera’s jewelry store in the Alamo Square Shopping Center.
Herrera, 53, who was on a first-name basis with Bennett, told investigators that Bennett came into his store at about 7 p.m., pulled a gun and said he had to rob him to save the home where he has lived for eight years with his wife, son and daughter.
Somehow during this exchange, Bennett opened fire and struck Herrera in the chest, Flynn told the Chronicle. Herrera, pleading for his life, moved to the back of the store, grabbed his own gun, and shot back, striking Bennett in the neck, mouth, and wrist.
Responding Contra Costa Sheriff’s deputies pulled Herrera out, and got him to the hospital. Bennett refused to surrender for about an hour, at one point standing in the doorway, pointing a gun at his own head and threatening suicide.
Now, both he and Herrera are recovering from their injuries at John Muir medical center, and Bennett has been charged with attempted murder, attempted robbery, commercial burglary.
Meanwhile, his family is dealing the possible loss of the home Bennett was apparently trying to save. Lee says that public records that that “Bennett and his wife, Sutton, were notified in August that they were $35,631 in default on their six-bedroom, 6,200-square-foot home, which they bought in 2001 for $1.2 million.”
“On Nov. 27, the couple received a “notice of trustee’s sale” detailing an unpaid balance of $2.3 million and indicating that their home would be sold at public auction Dec. 21, records show.”
According to a realty website, the Bennett property is in pre-foreclosure. “The homeowner has missed at least one payment and may be willing to sell this home at an attractive price, in order to avoid foreclosure.”