The Prisoner of Convention

The Atlantic just posted a non-gated review of Elmore Leonard (the review nominally covers The Hot Kid, but B.R. Myers is more interested in Leonard than this particular book). Myers makes an intriguing but wrong point about Leonard’s shift from Westerns to caper novels in that the latter abdicate morality in pursuit of cool and hence lose their… what? Heft? Authority? I can’t exactly tell, but I argue the opposite: Leonard’s move from simple stories of good and evil to stories with a shifting moral landscape make them better and more interesting novels that avoid easy conclusions about the characters inhabiting them and hence reach a depth that some of his earlier stories don’t.

I also dislike the implicit critical assumption about cultural commentary in Myers’ piece: that books, or at least Leonard’s books, need cleanly delineated good/evil opposites to function. He writes, “Back then [Leonard] was still immune to the silly idea that it’s unrealistic to pit a very good person against a very bad one.” It may or may not be unrealistic, but Myers seems to imply that he prefers stories about very good people against very bad ones—which is fine, but if so, he shouldn’t criticize Leonard for writing the kind of books he does not prefer. I find nothing wrong with the style of novel in which good/evil characters are made evident—Lord of the Rings is among my favorite novels, and no one is worse than Sauron or better than Aragorn—but to imply that stories involving ambiguity are inherently bad means that Myers won’t let novels explore what makes good good and bad bad; Leonard, in a subtle way, usually does in his caper novels, and also manages to show how good guys and bad guys often aren’t so different, when one even can identify the good guys and bad guys. Carl Webster in The Hot Kid is the supposed good guy mostly because he has a bade in The Hot Kid, and he’s mostly comic in Up in Honey’s Room, though to his credit he is chasing Nazis. Sometimes one can’t easily tell the good guys from the bad guys. Leonard might want to write about cool, so let him, without encumbering him with moralistic baggage.

Read “The Prisoner of Cool” for its useful and interesting observations about Leonard’s style and progression, even if you too think the conclusions are wrong. There is a reason I title this, “The Prisoner of Convention.”

UPDATE: I posted again on Myers here.

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