Road Dogs — Elmore Leonard

I’m very much on the record as an Elmore Leonard fan, but his newest novel, Road Dogs, reminds of me of Mr. Paradise, and not in a flattering way: they both strain a bit too hard and don’t come together as well as they should.

That’s an unfairly vague statement. But I can’t easily find a place to situate it in the text of Road Dogs. Plot points might provide assistance: bank robber Jack Foley of Out of Sight fame gets off thanks to his cellmate Cundo Rey, meets the beautiful Dawn Navarro, and implicitly agrees to participation in whatever scheme Cundo has, presumably involving A Simple Plan-levels of money.

The convoluted plot explanation in this New York Times review by Janet Maslin shows the futility of trying to write succinctly about an Elmore Leonard novel, as tracking the array of motives and ideals behind each character is one of the many pleasures his novels give; they are practically a master class in plot, which might be in part what makes them so real. Each character is (mostly) rational in a different way; the characters don’t make wildly implausible leaps and evolve in a way that’s realistic and yet surprising.

Most of the time, anyway. The setup for Road Dogs sounds good, but I kept thinking: would Foley really go along with the game, knowing that he’s likely to be played? When he sleeps with Dawn—too early in the plot—does the premonition of ill consequences with Cundo reverberate. Would Foley let Dawn’s hustle—pretending to be a mystic or medium—go on, knowing it was silly? Maybe all three are unfair, or silly, but they seem character violations, which are especially surprising in a writer who so seldom commits them, whose characters breathe like your roommate, or the guy you knew from high school who got sent up for weed, or whatever. Jack Foley did in Out of Sight. In this novel, Cundo sees him as I did in Out of Sight while they pass time in prison:

The way I see you, Jack, you smart, you can be a serious guy, but you don’t like to show anything is important to you. You here, you don’t complain—not anymore—you could be an old hippie living here. You get your release . . . Ah, now you get to think what you going to do.

If that’s what it takes to get Jack into whatever Cundo plans, he’s not so smart a guy. The real question becomes, why do bright guys like Foley bother dealing with so many idiots? It’s a paradoxical issue present in many Leonard books, and one that can be explained away through circumstances, upbringing, temperament, and more, and yet it still sticks out when I consider many of his works as a whole, like a bit of sand in an otherwise greased machine.

And the grease is still present. Leonard gives a fabulous description of an empty cop who “didn’t seem to know where he wanted to go, got to the end of his marble-slab desk, nothing on it, and stopped.” I like that—”nothing on it,” much as there’s nothing in the guy’s mind. But Leonard can also over do it, as when he makes fun of the Alan Moore-types through the mumbo jumbo a woman named Danialle spouts:

[It’s] sort of spooky… talking about the reality of the unseen world. It exists on a higher vibrational frequency than ours. The temperature’s a constant seventy-eight degrees, and there aren’t any insects, but there are animals, pets.

In the context it’s funny enough but never goes past that; this isn’t a study in the psychological, as The Turn of the Screw is.

Despite these problems, one can count on Leonard for consistency: since switching from Westerns to a genre that’s a kissing cousin to mystery, which I call “caper novels,” he’s written 80,000-word novels featuring protagonists who are streetwise but not over educated, clever without being brilliant, and cool until they’re pushed too far. Crime hovers around each novel; a few have it at their center, as in one of his two best novels, Out of Sight and Get Shorty.

Leonard’s much praised dialog still often kills. Here’s Jack Foley, reformed bank robber dealing with a man who needs no further description:

Where you been… you get stuck with the white-power ding-dongs, the best thing is to sound as dumb as they are and they’ll think you’re funny. You heard them laugh, didn’t you? And they don’t laugh much. It’s against their code of behavior.

Leonard’s style remains, but Road Dogs feels like he’s coasting, and the latest variation of coat and pants are not quite tailored as they should be; stitches show, and we get the impression a better job might have been done. Maybe Leonard shows his hand too early, as Cundo Rey and Dawn Navarro don’t get more attractive as the narrative progresses, and they don’t throw much in the way of surprises. They rub off, unfortunately, on Foley, who suffers by the company he keeps, as we all do. But he doesn’t find new company, as he did in Out of Sight, who will show him in the style he deserves.

(See Robert Pinsky’s review in the New York Times, which apparently loves Leonard so much that they’ll look at Road Dogs twice. He says:

But a good book should also be about something. Although it isn’t always mentioned, Leonard’s books have subjects. “Road Dogs” is about the varying degrees of truth and baloney in human relationships. Sometimes the truth or the baloney is lethal.

I’m not sure this is true—not for this one of Leonard’s books. That might be part of its problem—that, or all of his books are about truth and baloney to a large degree, especially given the milieu Leonard writes about. Maybe this thought will be the subject of an eventual academic article.)

Away

I began reading Amy Bloom’s Away based primarily on recommendations: Carrie Frye’s, for example, which also conveniently links to positive reviews. I disagree with them: over 70 pages, Away didn’t capture my attention; I never cared about the main character, and while the writing was strong it was also pedestrian. Carrie says, “The novel was as psychologically acute as I expect from Bloom — as a writer, she is both so comprehending and tender about the human animal — but the prose seemed more charged than anything I’ve read of hers previously.” If Away is charged, I won’t be reading the others. A few sections of Away were funny, but not funny enough to sustain the whole, and next to a vastly more powerful novel like A Simple Plan, Away wilts. It’s being sold at a small loss at Amazon, and I’m on to whatever is next from the shelf, which will, I hope, provide more lasting pleasure. The time I might’ve allotted to it is gone, and part of my (early) New Year’s resolution is to not waste time on unworthy books when there are plenty of better ones.

(If you’re looking for something about the Jewish immigrant experience, try Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, a superior if stranger novel.)

A Simple Plan

James Fallows reminded me of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a novel that is anything but simple and about a deceptively easy opportunity for huge money. Taking the cash, however, cascades into hell like a modern version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, published nearly 400 years earlier.

A Simple Plan follows societally unimportant men as they squabble for money each thinks will give him a place in the larger world. I don’t know whether Smith thought of the legend of Faust—which has also been covered by Goethe and Thomas Mann, but it is hard to miss the parallels, with power in the form of money coming at the expense of spiritual and moral well-being, ultimately leading toward an end that, as we are told early, is unlikely to be good. Within 30 pages, Hank says he might’ve turned the money in to Sheriff Jenkins “before it had a chance to unravel and entangle us all,” but his choices toward dancing with the devil eventually leave him with nowhere to go but forward into darkness.

Modern literature doesn’t necessarily need a literal manifestation of the devil to present his offer. Hank begins succumbing to the metaphorical lure even before encountering Jenkins, saying: “The dynamic of [the] relationship [between him and Jacob] had shifted, I realized. I was in control now; I was the spoiler, the one who would decide what happened to the money.” A page later, the vague sense of the supernatural is invoked when Hank says the find is “like a gift from the gods.” But the gods don’t often give gifts unencumbered by strings. This interplay among fate, power, and choice plays throughout the novel, with each choice making it harder to give up the money until finally Hank feels he can’t, leading inexorably to the end. This end is different than Marlowe’s Faustus but still a study in the ways of power, this one not from a pygmy rather than epic point of view.

A Simple Plan also implicitly argues that three can keep a secret if two are dead, as Benjamin Franklin said. Corpses pile up early and eventually to tragic proportions, leading one away from the real (how can cops miss so many?) and toward the traditional forms of tragedy. This interplay between old and recent literary developments, as well as the greed and compassion of the characters, gives A Simple Plan lasting resonance, as does Smith’s direct, understated, and mostly excellent writing (an exception: “My heart was beating thickly in my temples”). Most often, though, the prose never impedes and usually enhances the story, with Hank’s pathos mingling with monstrousness as he chooses a path that is at first horrifying and then, to the reader, more horrifying still as consorting with the devil becomes more normal.

On crime fiction

Perhaps C.E.O libraries contain more crime fiction than they used to, as James Fallows writes today what many readers have probably thought:

Like most people who enjoy spy novels and crime fiction, I feel vaguely guilty about this interest. I realize that crime fiction is classy now, and has taken over part of the describing-modern-life job that high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities. My friend Patrick Anderson*, who has reviewed mysteries for years at the Washington Post, recently published a very good book to this effect: The Triumph of the Thriller. Still, you feel a little cheesy when you see a stack of lurid mystery covers sitting next to the bed.

So I’ve figured out a way to tell the books I can feel good about reading from the ones I should wean myself from. The test is: can I remember something from the book a month later — or, better, six months or a year on. This is the test I apply to “real” fiction too: surprisingly often, a great book is great because it presents a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn’t thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards.

I’ve never loved crime fiction but respect the best of it. The idea of genre fiction has always seemed suspect to me, as my fundamental test of a novel regardless of the section of the bookstore in which it sits is, “Does it move me?” The definition of “move” has many entries, but if it achieves this fundamental task I don’t care what’s on its cover.

Fallows is depressingly accurate with his barb about “high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities,” although I’m well aware of exceptions to this comment, which echoes some the issues raised by A Reader’s Manifesto. He goes on to list a number of his favorites, none of which I’ve read except for A Simple Plan, an excellent novel I highly recommend. It spawned the eponymous movie, which is also excellent and forgotten.

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