Two years and change ago I wrote a short post about Elmore Leonard, introducing him by asking “Why is Elmore Leonard so damn good when he’s at his best?” (the linked post has a long passage that’s still among my favorites for its verisimilitude in terms ofs form and content). I still have no answer, but seeing him at the Tucson Festival of Books inspired me to reread Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Mr. Paradise. At boring panels when I couldn’t gracefully leave, the mass-market paperback edition of Out of Sight helped pass the time, but it’s not the sort of novel one can quit after 60 pages.
Leonard writes women with teeth, which numerous reviewers have noted; as Peter Wolf wrote in 1990, “Since Stick (1983), [Leonard’s] female characters have taken on a dimension rivaling that of his men; as a result, they generate more plot movement and spring more surprises than their earlier counterparts.” Describing just how Leonard does it might demand an entire academic paper; one of my favorite examples popped up in Out of Sight when Karen Sisco, the Marshall, says that, “Once you’re into it and you’re pumped up and you know who the guy is and you know you can’t give him one fucking inch . . . he has the choice, you don’t.” That might be as accurate a comment on human affairs as anyphilosophy book ever written. Or it might be empty pop commentary; another such moment happens when Sisco compares her bank robbing lover, Jack Foley, to Harry Dean Stanton in affect but not looks, saying that they were “both real guys who seemed tired of who they were, but couldn’t do anything about it.” One pleasure of the pulps is the blurred and indistinct line between the profound and silly, and one gets the impression that Leonard doesn’t care about the difference, if there is one.
The same kind of realism pervades Get Shorty. In describing Harry Zimm, Leonard says, “Forty-nine movies and [Harry] looked more like a guy drove a delivery truck or came to fix your air-conditioning when it quit, a guy with a tool kit.” Dropping the “who” and other connectors is a classic Leonard move; it looks ostentatious in a single sentence, as if the novel was poorly edited, but in the context one quickly adapts to the rhythms of speech. Martin Amis’ Money is the only other novel I can think of with so distinctive and vigorous a voice that also succeeds. And notice that description of Harry the movie guy: it’s so good because it’s accurate and tells us that many producer and production people are essentially technicians, and the skills they employ aren’t fundamentally different in deployment than the guy who fixes your car or Xerox. Leonard compresses into a sentence what Julie Salamon conveys without stating in all of The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood.
Harry is desperate and foolish; when he makes a mistake he’ll rationalize, as he does here after disobeying Chili Palmer’s advice regarding discretion:
“I had to,” Harry said, sounding pretty definite about it. “I’ve got a chance to put together a deal that’ll change my life, make me an overnight success after thirty years in the business. . . . But I need a half a million to get it started.”
In Chris Matthew’s wonderful nonfiction account/short story collection/political primer (the book has elements of all three) Hardball, he has an entire chapter called “Don’t talk unless it improves the silence.” Chili knows that. Harry doesn’t. And yet that quote conveys all of Harry’s greed, desperation and vanity all in one spot, and the link between Hollywood hustlers and drug/mob hustlers is so pervasive and intertwined with this novel that merely pointing it out is almost gratuitous. And yet the section is compelling because one always thinks of that big chance to change your life—what would you do to accomplish it? It’s an enduring question and reminds me of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, where the answer seems to stretch a little bit more with each passing act until the answer effectively becomes, “anything.”
Earlier I mentioned that Leonard probably wouldn’t care for elaborate discussion about the difference, if any, between genre and literary fiction. You almost hear his derision through one of his characters when Karen Flores, the woman consistently underestimated as the bimbo, says
I got the feeling the studio forced the script on her and she has to go with it. She said… [the story is] involving, reflective, has resonance, a certain texture—those are all story department words.
All of them are weak, empty synonyms for “I like it.” Why not just say that? Leonard would. Maybe that’s why he can write a novel that so effectively mocks Hollywood, feels some bizarre compulsion to dress its rationalizations—there’s that word again—in jargon to try and prevent people from seeing beneath them. Leonard doesn’t, and I think that’s part of the reason his female characters are so effective when they’re so often props in wiseguy novels: he writes them in with their own desires and hopes and goals, beyond mooning after the hero. They’re competent. So are many of his heroes: competent but flawed describes them well. His writing, on the other hand, is so competent that it transcends competence and becomes nearly flawless. I have a short list of writers whose new books I will buy almost automatically, and Leonard is on it for good reason.