Elmore Leonard on what it means to write

“I’m glad I’ve always had a commercial bent. I want to make money doing this. I had no dream of going to the Iowa Writing School, or whatever it’s called, and learning to write that way. When The New Yorker guy asked me to send him a story, I said, ‘I don’t write New Yorker stories. The stories I write I can always understand.’ And I can. My stories always have a definite ending, a payoff. I think he was a little insulted.”

—Elmore Leonard, in an interview with Keith Taylor for Witness

Raylan and the pursuit of cool — Elmore Leonard

The major problem in Raylan is an implausibility the novel itself mocks. In the novel, marshal Raylan Givens investigates kidney theft—as in, thieves sedate a victim, surgically remove his kidneys, and leave him in ice water. Rumors about this have circulated on the Internet for more than a decade, and debunkers have attacked those rumors for almost as long; it does appear that a kidney theft ring operated in India, but the idea that drunken idiots in rural Kentucky would steal kidneys is simply ludicrous and, more than that, sloppy—much like the oil-tanker-shooting plotline in Djibouti. Leonard’s best novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight don’t resort to such dubious ideas.

Still, his characters are at least aware of the problem. Tim, one of the marshals, says, “It’s like that old story [. . .] Guy wakes up missin a kidney. Has no idea who took it. People bring it up from time to time, but nobody ever proved it happened.” Raylan replies, “It has now.” The problem is, I still don’t believe it, and the novel never really resolve the incongruity for reasons that I don’t want to reveal here. For one thing, if you had a fence for a kidney, you could probably find people to sell them for not much more than it costs to steal them, and without the police hassle involved.

Outside of that problem—and it’s a major problem, but one I’m willing to overlook for the laconic beauty of Leonard’s writing and the speed of his plots—Raylan has all the usual Leonard virtues, even if over the course of a dozen books they become less pronounced, like the gorgeous view of an apartment you own. But one thing I notice more and more is the drama of status that plays out, over and over, in his novels. In this one, for example, one of the cops named Rachel says of Cuba Banks, who might be one of the bad guys, “Slim body, has that offhand strut.” Raylan says that “He’s got a bunch of white genes but not enough to pass,” making Rachel speculate, “Or maybe he did but didn’t care for the life.” Raylan continues, “Lost his sense of rhythm [. . .] but he’s still cool.” Rachel shows that she’s cool too, by not having to ask what it means to be cool, by simply rolling with Raylan’s ideas. A few pages later, Raylan is talking to Cuba, and asks if “They call you ‘boy’?” Cuba says, “They do, I’m gone,” because he’s too cool to put up with that kind of racial slur. The lesser kinds of racial slurs he’ll tolerate, as long as he knows he’s willing to tolerate them, but not being called boy. He has pride. He’s cool enough to. He’s cool enough to know what he does, why he’s doing it, and why he’s willing to admit it: to gain status in the eyes of Raylan.

By contrast, drug dealers and idiots Coover and Dickie aren’t cool; Coover, for example, throws a dead rat on Raylan’s car, but in response Raylan didn’t move, “didn’t glance around.” He says, though, “What’re you trying to tell me?” and Coover says, “Take it any way you want, long as you know I’m serious.” There’s only one way to take it, as a threat, and Coover in effect accomplishes the opposite of what he says: someone serious doesn’t signal their intentions through something as strident and dumb as a dead rat. Someone cool doesn’t don’t need something as obvious or ugly, and Raylan has seen the general class of behavior before: “You’re telling me you’re a mean son of a bitch [. . .] You know how many wanted felons have given me that look? I say a thousand I’m low. Some turn ugly as I snap on the cuffs; they’re too late. Some others, I swear, even try to draw down on me. All I’m asking, how’d you come to take Angel’s kidneys?” He doesn’t need to react through further, explicit macho posturing: Raylan has already proven himself through the number of “wanted felons” who’ve “given me that look,” and delivers an implicit threat in the form of cuffs or drawing. Then he moves back to the central matter: kidneys. If he weren’t cool, he’d respond. As it is, he knows enough to wait.

The drama of cool pervades the whole novel, and there’s even a subtle dig at artistic pretension, as when marshal Bill Nichols says of a son, “Tim’s writing his second novel in New York. The first one sold four thousand. I asked him what it’s about, the one he’s writing. He [BREAK] said the subtext is the exposure of artistic pretension.” Which is itself pretentious and silly; start with a text before you focus on subtext. He’s not as cool, in Nichols’ reading, as the guys hunting down felons.

Cool extends to sex, too, and Raylan can decline without seeming prude. When sexy company woman Carol offers it, he says no, and she says, “You’re turning me down? [. . .] I’m surprised.” Raylan isn’t above sex, but he’s not going to reduce his perceived integrity, either, and he says, “You aren’t the only one.” Admitting to his own surprise is part of what’s cool: he doesn’t claim the mantle of dubious purity, which he establishes through admitting surprise. Later, when the sexy, knowing female poker star Jackie finds herself with Raylan, she says, “I might as well tell you now, because I know I will later. I’ve got a serious crush on you. I’m excited by how cool you are. You carry and gun and’ve used it.” She admits she sees Raylan is cool, while simultaneously establishing her own coolness through ditching games and simply saying she has “a serious crush.” The cool gain coolness by recognizing coolness in others; Jackie’s, however, isn’t derived from her looks, or at least not primarily from her looks: it’s derived from her ability to play poker and to talk, and to talk straight: hence the crush (in this respect, even Carol is cool, though not as cool as Jackie, because she approaches sex without obvious pretense or as a quid pro quo arrangement—still, as the company woman, she’s not as cool as freelancer Jackie).

Describing cool is antithetical to having it, but hey—I’m an academic, which means I’ve already forfeited cool to the pursuit of ceaseless questioning. So it goes. Some guys gotta chase felons. Others ask what the chase means and, more generally, what things mean and how they mean them. Raylan might look at me askance, and really look at me askance for using the word “askance,” but it’s what I do: notice. Here, I’m noticing what Leonard does, and I’ve been thinking about writing an academic article about Leonard’s dramatization of cool, which his characters so often use to establish a firm yet shifting landscape of values distinct to the peculiar world of hustlers and players write about so effectively. Most writers try to be cool and in the process fail; Leonard, through trying by not trying, succeeds. Establishing this idea textually is part of the challenge in writing the paper, because it requires a finely honed theory of mind and theory of cool, but I think I’m cool enough to recognize cool, even if I’m not quite cool enough to be it.

New Elmore Leonard novel: Djibouti

Elmore Leonard has a new novel coming out Tuesday: Djibouti. That means I’m going to lose Tuesday night and some of Wednesday.

Based the Amazon description, Djibouti sounds like a departure from Leonard’s usual lowlife habitats of Detroit, Miami, and sometimes Los Angeles. As the New York Times puts it:

In a book without a powerhouse plot but with plenty of the old familiar crackle, Mr. Leonard simply flies his principals to this exotic spot and then imagines which other opportunists might be drawn to the place. He hits pay dirt with a noisily ostentatious Texan named Billy Wynn, who can count a big boat, an elephant gun and a model named Helene among his favorite possessions. Helene, this book’s funniest character, is willing to sail around the world with Billy on the off chance that he will marry her and write her into his will.

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.)

Get Shorty and Out of Sight redux — Elmore Leonard

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.

Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard at the Tucson Festival of Books

The Tucson Festival of Books began with a mystery friend—the designation is at the request of said friend—and I wandering the booths. Some monkish types tried to convince me to buy a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that I already had. We attended a nonfiction panel where one member spoke of the danger of “Not realizing the potential of the moment” and capturing “the spirit of the event” and asking “what is truth?” During the talk, I read the first 40 pages of Out of Sight.

The food tent came next, and with it most notably some excellent caramel corn:

caramel-corn2

A few hundred people heard Elmore Leonard, but the guy who interviewed him wasn’t particularly skillful (with questions about Westerns—Leonard hasn’t written them in decades—and ones that boil down to, “What writers have influenced you?” His answer, which I could’ve predicted, was The Friends of Eddie Coyle; see this post) and called Leonard a “man who needs no introduction.” Then why introduce him? Anyway, Leonard did say that he shifted from writing Westerns to “Easterns” and that Arizona highways in the 50s were filled with good stories that he used in his novels and stories.elmore_leonard_signing2

The novel he’s writing now is set on the East Coast of Africa, which is a greater stretch for Leonard than some previous novels because he doesn’t know how to relate to the story as well. But his forthcoming novel, Road Dogs, will be released in May and follows the more familiar teerritory Jack Foley of Out of Sight along with a few other characters from books I haven’t read. Expect to read more about Road Dogs in this space.

Leonard’s best response came from a question about his characters’ morality or lack thereof, when Leonard said “I have a kind feeling of all my characters… I like my characters, but I think most of them are just dumb.” He’s also difficult to imitate because “you have to imitate the emotions behind them,” which too many people seem to discount. An audience member asked about redemption and Leonard answered about money; he also repeated the advice he’s given to directors of movies based on his books: When someone delivers a funny line that’s not intentionally funny, don’t cut to someone laughing. To Leonard, that’s part of what ruined the movie version of Be Cool, which is better as a book.

The last speaker on Saturday, Billy Collins was a quiet riot, knowing that the better part of jokes often consists of holding back and the better part of delivery consists of practice. His reading was like a big-deal boxing match, with a few palookas warming up the crowd before the main card that served chiefly to highlight Collins’ skill. He took Leonard’s advice by not smiling as he said, “If it’s wrong to be writing to a reader, I don’t want to be right.” Next month is apparently national poetry month, and Collins said, “If you name a day or a week or a month after something, you know it’s in decline.” There is no national TV week.

His poems were wonderful; in “Tension,” one got the impression that Collins is a rule-breaker of the best sort. He’s wry and self-aware, as in “The Trouble with Poetry:”

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,

[…]

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks

He’s contributing to the proliferation of poetry, so it’s obviously not so great a problem, and yet the poem shifts into a brief comment on life, when he mentions a book that “I carried in a side pocket of my uniform / up and down the treacherous halls of high school,” implying that perhaps poetry helped him to become a poetic thief and thus to encourage “the writing of more poetry.”billy_collins2

The tongue-in-cheek aspect continued through Collins’ poems; he read one called “On Turning Ten” that he said he wrote because he “wanted to make fun of poets who write midlife crisis death poems.” So there’s an elegy to all that’s lost upon attaining one’s tenth year. In “The Lanyard,” looking up the word “lanyard” in a dictionary functions as a “cookie nibbled by a French novelist.” The poem compares a child making a lanyard for his mother in payment for all she’s done:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
SHe nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

The mock conceit reminds one of the disparity that must exist between most parents and their children, which can only be repaid by passing it on. But for Collins, the issue isn’t a heavy burden, or if it is, it should be addressed lightly, in a poem like “The Lanyard” that is aware of its own absurdity and therefore becomes more real in exchange of “thousands of meals” for a lanyard, “which I made with a little help from a counselor.”

I wish Collins’ attitude had been shared by the nonfiction panel. Alas: we can’t all be so reasonable.

If nothing else, being induced to read Collins made the Festival worthwhile. Hopefully I learned something and, to paraphrase something its participants said, this post captures the spirit of the event.

Walter Scott's Waverley, the intrusive narrator, and showing, not telling

In Walter Scott’s Waverley, a representative passage states:

Now I protest to thee, gentle reader […] and hold it the most useful quality of my pen, that it can speedily change from grave to gay, and from description and dialogue to narrative and character. So that, if my quill display no other properties of its mother-goose than her mutability, truly I shall be well pleased; and I conceive that you, my worthy friend, will have not occasion for discontent. From the jargon, therefore, of the Highland gillies, I pass to the character of their Chief. It is an appropriate examination, and therefore, like Dogberry, we must spare no wisdom.

I would have preferred to be spared much wisdom, and perhaps all of Scott’s wisdom regarding the character of Fergus Mac-Ivor save that which is imparted through action and dialog. Among fiction writers, the cliché goes, “Show, don’t tell,” and though, like all such rules it should be broken when the need arises, Scott violates it doubly here: first he tells us that he’s going to tell us the character of Fergus, and then he tells us instead of showing us what that character is. We don’t need to pass “From the jargon […] of the Highland gillies […]” to Fergus, but for him simply to do so without announcing it, and his quill’s output doesn’t have the attributes of a goose, but of whatever use its author puts it to. By protesting that I should have no reason for discontent, Scott makes me discontent; he cannot control my content or dis-, and as such, he need merely tell the story, not tell me of its telling. Such protests are not cause for me to be well pleased, but cause for my own displeasure. To quote the advertising slogan of a national athletic apparel company, he should “just do it.” Basketball players can speak of their skill on the court as much as they wish, but the results we care about are on the scorecard, and authors can trumpet what they’ll do as much as they wish, but the results we care about are the stories, not the explanations. In sparring no wisdom, Scott spares us much of the novelistic wisdom of the last two hundred years.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood attributes the small-m modern novel to Flaubert in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary […]

This is the standard by which Andrew Hook, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Waverley, probably judges the novel when he says that it “[…] may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century.” Scholarly introductions normally extol a book’s literary as well social/political merit, but in this case the first point is conceded in order to strengthen the second. Perhaps this is in part because of the kind of thing quoted above or what appears to be Scott’s direct address in the first chapter / introduction—the two have not been fully separated yet—when he writes that he tries to avoid writing what we would now call a period piece by “[…] throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors; – those passions common to men in all stages of society […]” The same issue debated today, but within criticism rather than novels. In a recent New Yorker article titled “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his Discontents,” Louis Menand says that “[Lionel Trilling] was a humanist who believe that works of literature can speak to us across time […]” before describing Trilling’s steady abandonment of that position, or at least that position in its strongest form. But Trilling argued it in nonfiction, not in fiction, and Menand argues about Trilling argues in nonfiction. Scott gives many of his theories within Waverley in a way that seems paternalistic to this post-Flaubert reader.

Wood probably overstates the case for Flaubert, but my quarrel with him is one of degree rather than fundamental alignment. One thing Flaubert accomplished in his endless quest for realism, which is itself a kind of artificial representation no matter how real, is to at least somewhat relegate the most odious and intrusive passages in Waverley into books like How Fiction Works, or Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, or the innumerable other works by author/critics who save their explicit theorizing for nonfiction studying fiction, rather than fiction itself. This can be avoided, as many contemporary authors do by using writers and critics as characters. Philip Roth did so in his Zuckerman novels and Michael Chabon does so in Wonder Boys. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, reads a troubled student’s first novel and says that

… like most good first novels it possessed an imperturbable, mistaken confidence that all the shocking incidents and extremes of human behavior it dished up would strike new chords of outrage and amazement in the reader. It was a brazen, ridiculous, thrilling performance, with a ballast of genuine sadness that kept the whole thing from keeling over in the gale-force winds of melodrama.

Although I’m not certain I would agree with the generalities expressed in Tripp’s commentary, it does at the very least hearken back to older novels like Don Quixote or Waverley. The difference is that in Wonder Boys, the digression is organic and part of the characterization of the novel itself, rather than a cutting and intrusive digression. The action for the characters themselves doesn’t freeze as a lecture gets dropped in, and the literary theory expressed has some resonance for the novel’s story. Tripp and his agent, Terry Crabtree, are going to decide what to do with Leer based in part on his novel, which they evaluate in part by their own aesthetic criteria. In Waverley, the didactic tone interrupts the action instead of being part of it and focuses on the reader themself, not the characters through the reader. Both are accomplished with layers—in Waverley, with the historian, and in Wonder Boys, with Tripp—but Wonder Boys has that additional facet of integration rather than separation.

Wonder Boys also assumes at least some familiarity with novels and novel theory; notice that Tripp is critical of “the gale-force winds of melodrama,” which simplifies and flattens characters in a way that strikes sophisticated readers as weak. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, sneers that 19th Century melodrama “[…] produced a kind of naively sensational entertainment in which the main characters were excessively virtuous or exceptionally evil.” Waverley succumbs to this trap in part, with characters like Edward and Colonel Talbot, but also escapes from it with Fergus and Flora, as the former is willing to turn against Edward while the latter doesn’t swoon like a stereotypical maiden as soon as the light hero arrives. In this respect, Scott is being more modern than I might want to give him credit for, but he’s still a long way from the evolution of a novel like Wonder Boys, whether in terms of plot, characterization, or, as discussed here, knowledge of literary theory and ideas. Later in the same passage, Tripp approvingly notes that Leer has “largely abandoned his silly experiments with syntax and punctuation,” giving us further theory of what makes a good novel as stated by the character of the novel, who would probably not care for stylistically ostentatious writers who are ostentatious for its own sake, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, or, in some novels, Percival Everett.

It’s possible that novels simply can’t avoid commenting on the form to some extent, just as novels can’t seem to avoid some aspect of epistemology and mystery—even the basic mystery of “what happens next,” though a similar drive might propel readers of essays or other nonfiction. Elmore Leonard is the literary novelist I’m familiar with who gets furthest from the recursive structure of novelists on novels within novels, but even he succumbs to that urge in The Hot Kid. Before starting this response, these ideas were rolling around my mind, and I began editing the novel I’m working on, and found a passage that could be about the ability to read a character in the novel:

I looked over my notes from the previous night and found Cassie’s Facebook profile—she was the keg-stand girl—which had a note about her hangover. Otherwise, her profile contained a long list of favorite music and TV shows, but no books, and also had many semi-literate wall notes. Some from DGs empathized regarding hangovers.

The difference between Chabon, Leonard, and others, versus Scott, however, is the difference between a death metal band and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata: subtlety and composition.

None of this essay depreciates Scott’s historical importance to the development of the novel as a genre or of Romance, which was Hook’s initial point. Scott remains historically important, however, chiefly because of influence. Some of his sins might sins of a new form without boundary, and thus Scott might have felt the need to explain the form so that it can be properly enjoyed. Two hundred years since, however, the form is much understood, and an ocean of reading exists beyond what any mortal given present expected longevity can expect to achieve. If Scott caused anxiety in through that influence, it has long been cast off because he, like any pioneer, did not reach the maximum potential of the form he helped establish. Perhaps no artist does, but others have reached further than Scott, and now the dust of archives clings to his prose, which too often offers justification when it doesn’t need to: that his “pen can speedily change from grave to gay,” and many other passages I want to strike with my own pen and write in the margins, “We know!”

Walter Scott’s Waverley, the intrusive narrator, and showing, not telling

In Walter Scott’s Waverley, a representative passage states:

Now I protest to thee, gentle reader […] and hold it the most useful quality of my pen, that it can speedily change from grave to gay, and from description and dialogue to narrative and character. So that, if my quill display no other properties of its mother-goose than her mutability, truly I shall be well pleased; and I conceive that you, my worthy friend, will have not occasion for discontent. From the jargon, therefore, of the Highland gillies, I pass to the character of their Chief. It is an appropriate examination, and therefore, like Dogberry, we must spare no wisdom.

I would have preferred to be spared much wisdom, and perhaps all of Scott’s wisdom regarding the character of Fergus Mac-Ivor save that which is imparted through action and dialog. Among fiction writers, the cliché goes, “Show, don’t tell,” and though, like all such rules it should be broken when the need arises, Scott violates it doubly here: first he tells us that he’s going to tell us the character of Fergus, and then he tells us instead of showing us what that character is. We don’t need to pass “From the jargon […] of the Highland gillies […]” to Fergus, but for him simply to do so without announcing it, and his quill’s output doesn’t have the attributes of a goose, but of whatever use its author puts it to. By protesting that I should have no reason for discontent, Scott makes me discontent; he cannot control my content or dis-, and as such, he need merely tell the story, not tell me of its telling. Such protests are not cause for me to be well pleased, but cause for my own displeasure. To quote the advertising slogan of a national athletic apparel company, he should “just do it.” Basketball players can speak of their skill on the court as much as they wish, but the results we care about are on the scorecard, and authors can trumpet what they’ll do as much as they wish, but the results we care about are the stories, not the explanations. In sparring no wisdom, Scott spares us much of the novelistic wisdom of the last two hundred years.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood attributes the small-m modern novel to Flaubert in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary […]

This is the standard by which Andrew Hook, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Waverley, probably judges the novel when he says that it “[…] may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century.” Scholarly introductions normally extol a book’s literary as well social/political merit, but in this case the first point is conceded in order to strengthen the second. Perhaps this is in part because of the kind of thing quoted above or what appears to be Scott’s direct address in the first chapter / introduction—the two have not been fully separated yet—when he writes that he tries to avoid writing what we would now call a period piece by “[…] throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors; – those passions common to men in all stages of society […]” The same issue debated today, but within criticism rather than novels. In a recent New Yorker article titled “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his Discontents,” Louis Menand says that “[Lionel Trilling] was a humanist who believe that works of literature can speak to us across time […]” before describing Trilling’s steady abandonment of that position, or at least that position in its strongest form. But Trilling argued it in nonfiction, not in fiction, and Menand argues about Trilling argues in nonfiction. Scott gives many of his theories within Waverley in a way that seems paternalistic to this post-Flaubert reader.

Wood probably overstates the case for Flaubert, but my quarrel with him is one of degree rather than fundamental alignment. One thing Flaubert accomplished in his endless quest for realism, which is itself a kind of artificial representation no matter how real, is to at least somewhat relegate the most odious and intrusive passages in Waverley into books like How Fiction Works, or Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, or the innumerable other works by author/critics who save their explicit theorizing for nonfiction studying fiction, rather than fiction itself. This can be avoided, as many contemporary authors do by using writers and critics as characters. Philip Roth did so in his Zuckerman novels and Michael Chabon does so in Wonder Boys. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, reads a troubled student’s first novel and says that

… like most good first novels it possessed an imperturbable, mistaken confidence that all the shocking incidents and extremes of human behavior it dished up would strike new chords of outrage and amazement in the reader. It was a brazen, ridiculous, thrilling performance, with a ballast of genuine sadness that kept the whole thing from keeling over in the gale-force winds of melodrama.

Although I’m not certain I would agree with the generalities expressed in Tripp’s commentary, it does at the very least hearken back to older novels like Don Quixote or Waverley. The difference is that in Wonder Boys, the digression is organic and part of the characterization of the novel itself, rather than a cutting and intrusive digression. The action for the characters themselves doesn’t freeze as a lecture gets dropped in, and the literary theory expressed has some resonance for the novel’s story. Tripp and his agent, Terry Crabtree, are going to decide what to do with Leer based in part on his novel, which they evaluate in part by their own aesthetic criteria. In Waverley, the didactic tone interrupts the action instead of being part of it and focuses on the reader themself, not the characters through the reader. Both are accomplished with layers—in Waverley, with the historian, and in Wonder Boys, with Tripp—but Wonder Boys has that additional facet of integration rather than separation.

Wonder Boys also assumes at least some familiarity with novels and novel theory; notice that Tripp is critical of “the gale-force winds of melodrama,” which simplifies and flattens characters in a way that strikes sophisticated readers as weak. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, sneers that 19th Century melodrama “[…] produced a kind of naively sensational entertainment in which the main characters were excessively virtuous or exceptionally evil.” Waverley succumbs to this trap in part, with characters like Edward and Colonel Talbot, but also escapes from it with Fergus and Flora, as the former is willing to turn against Edward while the latter doesn’t swoon like a stereotypical maiden as soon as the light hero arrives. In this respect, Scott is being more modern than I might want to give him credit for, but he’s still a long way from the evolution of a novel like Wonder Boys, whether in terms of plot, characterization, or, as discussed here, knowledge of literary theory and ideas. Later in the same passage, Tripp approvingly notes that Leer has “largely abandoned his silly experiments with syntax and punctuation,” giving us further theory of what makes a good novel as stated by the character of the novel, who would probably not care for stylistically ostentatious writers who are ostentatious for its own sake, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, or, in some novels, Percival Everett.

It’s possible that novels simply can’t avoid commenting on the form to some extent, just as novels can’t seem to avoid some aspect of epistemology and mystery—even the basic mystery of “what happens next,” though a similar drive might propel readers of essays or other nonfiction. Elmore Leonard is the literary novelist I’m familiar with who gets furthest from the recursive structure of novelists on novels within novels, but even he succumbs to that urge in The Hot Kid. Before starting this response, these ideas were rolling around my mind, and I began editing the novel I’m working on, and found a passage that could be about the ability to read a character in the novel:

I looked over my notes from the previous night and found Cassie’s Facebook profile—she was the keg-stand girl—which had a note about her hangover. Otherwise, her profile contained a long list of favorite music and TV shows, but no books, and also had many semi-literate wall notes. Some from DGs empathized regarding hangovers.

The difference between Chabon, Leonard, and others, versus Scott, however, is the difference between a death metal band and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata: subtlety and composition.

None of this essay depreciates Scott’s historical importance to the development of the novel as a genre or of Romance, which was Hook’s initial point. Scott remains historically important, however, chiefly because of influence. Some of his sins might sins of a new form without boundary, and thus Scott might have felt the need to explain the form so that it can be properly enjoyed. Two hundred years since, however, the form is much understood, and an ocean of reading exists beyond what any mortal given present expected longevity can expect to achieve. If Scott caused anxiety in through that influence, it has long been cast off because he, like any pioneer, did not reach the maximum potential of the form he helped establish. Perhaps no artist does, but others have reached further than Scott, and now the dust of archives clings to his prose, which too often offers justification when it doesn’t need to: that his “pen can speedily change from grave to gay,” and many other passages I want to strike with my own pen and write in the margins, “We know!”

More on Richard Price from the NYRB

Michael Chabon opines on Richard Price in the New York Review of Books. As usual regarding that publication, the essay is too long and digressive, but it’s worth reading anyway. A sample:

Lush Life is a good, worthwhile, and in many ways satisfying novel. No matter how routinely and highly praised it may be, Price’s ear for dialogue, his ability to capture and reproduce the rhythm, tone, and evanescent vocabulary of urban life, cannot be overpraised: with all due respect to Elmore Leonard, Price is our best, one of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature. Resorting with miraculous infrequency to the use of dialect spellings and other orthographical tricks, Price gets his characters’ words to convey subtle nuances of class, occupation, education, even geographical gradations of neighborhood, while also using them as a powerful vehicle for the transmission, in fits and starts, evasions and doublings back, of their interior lives. He is a perfect magpie for slang, and like its predecessors this novel is rich in fascinating bits of law-enforcement and street-criminal argot.

I’m on the record praising Lush Life. I still hold that Leonard is the better dialog writer, however, although Chabon’s position is entirely defensible. And I also hold that you don’t need to spell “dialog,” “dialogue.”

Lush Life and Richard Price in Seattle

Richard Price’s Lush Life is a study in power—who has it, who doesn’t, who is trying to get it—and dignity, which, sooner or later, almost every character loses. Those who have power and dignity in one sphere, as detective Matty Clark mostly does in the police world, lose it in another, as Matty does at home. He is uncomfortably close to a stock genre detective, but the lush language of Lush Life gives Matty others such life that they are people, and people who reflect their social and media environment.

Lush Life begins not with a murder but with the “Quality of Life Task Force,” a group of four white cops who are lowering, not raising, the quality of life. The idiotic speculation of one is juxtaposed with an image representing one of the book’s central concerns:

“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” Scharf gestures to the seedy-looking chain hotel, its neighbors an ancient knishery and a Seventh-Day Adventist church whose aluminum cross is superimposed over a stone-carved Star of David. “What was the thinking behind that.”

Groups overlap in Price’s Lower East Side, with the influence of the earlier group never fully erased, just as the Star of David is still faintly visible. People linger, which Price spoke about when he visited Seattle in March, saying that there are “six groups of people who don’t realize they’re not there anymore.” Moreover, as he says, “nobody knows anybody, nobody sees anything,” especially relating to crime, which leads to the perceived necessity of the Quality of Life Task Force and the real necessity of detectives like Matty.

The intersection of two particular groups leads murder, one group being the relatively wealthy suburban kids—I think of them as kids though one, Eric Cash, is a 35 waiter and would-be screenwriter—who move back to the areas their grant parents fled and provide the victim. The other group is the poor urban kids who might have provided the perpetrators. None come off well. Nor do their parents, who range from uninterested in actively hostile. The murder of Isaac Marcus, for example, inspires his divorced parents to shack up again in a hotel, and when Matty arrives afterward and opens a curtain, “both of them staring at him with the unself-consciousness of animals, with unblinking pie-eyed shock.” But are they in shock at the light, Matty, themselves, or the situation? I’m not sure, which is part of the novel’s beauty.

Ambiguity is everywhere, as characters hope and dream of higher places. Eric is a friend, loosely defined, of Isaac Marcus, his desire to get into the movies is a much lighter version of Sean Touhey from Clockers. Lush Life in general is a better, subtler, richer version of Clockers, which is a tremendous compliment, for Clockers itself is a strong novel. But Lush Life goes beyond it, artistically and socially. Where Clockers is all cops and robbers, Lush Life encompasses everyone from the rich kids and the nominally upper echelons of society to the street dregs. It captures the former better than, say, Claire Messud’s good if indulgent The Emperor’s Children, which also focuses on them, and the latter with the skill Price has already established. You see a fantastic collision on page 92, when Eric tries to describe his work, of which he is vaguely ashamed, especially in the face of the skeptical cops. And with good reason: Matty belittles him, the scene is so effective I a) hesitate to quote it and yet b) want to so badly*. The scene works so well because you know Matty’s description is what Eric thinks of himself if he’s being intellectually honest.

To the extent there are novelistic rules about plot, characterization, movement, motion, and the like, I don’t think Price breaks them—he simply wields novelistic conventions better than almost anyone else and uses his talent on language itself. One dangerous thing about writing a long post and then leaving it till much later for proofreading is that you never know when James Wood is going to come along and preempt you. But his discussion of Price’s dialog is worth reading, and I note that he also found the excruciating interrogation scene and quoted the same scene. Wood focuses on the dialog, but the brilliant descriptions and contrasts also help:

Despite its stark opulence, the place was the size of a shoe box, with barely a foot clearance between that huge bed and the three-sided terrace, which offered an imperial overview of the area: a sea of cramped and huddled walk-ups and century-old elementary schools, the only structures out there aspiring to any kind of height the randomly sprouting bright yellow Tyvek-wrapped multistory add-ons, and farther out, superimposed against the river, the housing projects and union-built co-ops that flanked the east side of this grubby vista like siege towers.

All that in one endlessly rolling sentence: by the time you’re at the end, you’ve forgiven him for using the shoebox cliché. Notice the missing verb between “height” and “the:” but it’s okay, the verb would only interrupt the flow of the speech, and I hadn’t realized its absence until after I quoted it here. The sentence tells you how the landscape reflects the people, with the age of it providing a backdrop of substance in lives that often seem to lack it.

Imperfections in Lush Lifeare minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical. Two pages later, though, and Price is hitting the high notes again, hiding and eliding and showing: “Seated with Minette on the front steps of the now deserted Langenshield, Matty went through the motions of rattling off a cursory progress report, omitting, of course, the continuing press gag, the scuttled seventh-day recanvass, and the unreturned phone calls.” We get a picture of the bureaucracy, are reminded of the plot, and learn about Matty in his role of cop in one swift, seamless recap; a page later, Matty’s lack of enthusiasm about his children is obvious: “He said, ‘Yeah,’ but Minette read the tell, searched his eyes for what he wasn’t saying.” As previously mentioned, Matty does fit the template of emotionally wounded but dedicated cop too well, just as his sidekick, Yolanda, is too close a fit to the wisecracking assistant, but these are things only recognized afterwards, as I discovered that the characters lead lives of what appear to be squalor from the outside. But Lush Life gives the sense that maybe their lives are redeemed by moments of happiness or small success. As the conflicts between cultural and social classes, law and desire, and power and language play out, Lush Life brought me along like a literary but streetsmart guide. I mentioned how few novels have moved me recently, and it’s a pleasure to find one that does so with such panache and skill.

The crowd at his reading, or at least the verbal part of it, seemed less interested in discussing the novel itself and the aforementioned panache and skill than the Lower East Side. A number of older transported New Yorkers came to talk, apparently, about geography and places.

But Price talked about ideas, too—about the residents who don’t want to complain too much because they’re immigrants, the families who came to the Lower East Side as immigrants and fled as soon as possible, and the ones now going back because of the real estate costs elsewhere in New York. One thing Price avoids is The Wonderful Past, as he said the Lower East Side “has always been a hellhole,” and sentimentality about it is only useful for the preservationists and such. One ironic point Price made is that a tenement museum exists not far from actual tenements, which I can believe.

I asked about the connection between Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities bears many similarities to Lush Life, and his own work. Price thought I referred to “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast” as mentioned here, but I said I meant that or Wolfe’s fiction. Price said it wasn’t explicitly on his mind but that Tom Wolfe had a point with his essay, and that there’s a whole world out there and you’re not obligated to make yourself its center. Instead of searching one’s interior, Price said “you can find yourself by getting lost,” and that’s been doing so for 15 years by following his gut wherever it takes him.

I got the impression that Price doesn’t really like Wolfe but respects him; in Lush Life, Price is a more consciously literary version of Elmore Leonard, which is a very good thing. Regardless of literary influences, however, Price has written as good a book as I’ve read recently and one that will, I imagine, prove even more resilient than Clockers.


* Okay, I can’t resist, but you’ve been warned that I recommend you skip it so the passage blows you away in the context. Matty tells Eric: “I have listened to your shit in here all day. You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That’s your everyday jacket. Now, add to that a gun and a gutful of vodka? I don’t believe that shooting last night was an accident. I think you were a walking time bomb and last night you finally went off.”

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