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.)

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.

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