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.

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.

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