It happens. R.E.M. gives us Around the Sun, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs Death Proof, Michael Fassbender appears in Jonah Hex. Even our most reliable artists stumble from time to time – it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise – and with any luck, they recover. That’s largely how I feel about Gold Coast, a book that seems to have something on its mind but doesn’t execute very well.
The problem (and I’ll try to keep this short) is that in this book Leonard fails where he usually succeeds: his characters are, as the French would say, total merde. The book revolves around a spectacularly uninteresting trio consisting of widow Karen, cowboy-hat-wearing villain Roland, and wannabe good guy Maguire. And that’s unfortunate, because Gold Coast actually sports a killer premise. Karen’s ultra-possessive, mobbed-up husband Frank dies and leave her his estate in trust: a monthly payment of $20,000 which will eventually total $4 million. The catch is that his possessiveness stays behind to haunt her. If Karen dates anyone else – ever – she forfeits the money, and Frank facilitates the deal from beyond the grave by arranging for Roland to tap her phones and scare off any would-be suitors. This is where Maguire, a petty thief who decided to go straight by working at a low-rent Sea World knock-off, enters the picture. He falls for Karen – and she for him, sorta – and, after Karen learns of Frank’s scheme, the two of them cook up a plan by which they can get Roland out of the picture.
It’s good, right? I mean, I don’t pretend to have enough legal savvy to know if Frank’s deal is plausible, but Leonard sells it. After the first couple chapters I was prepared for a typically entertaining ride from the master of this sort of thing. But, as I mentioned above, the three main characters are just … dull. Where Leonard’s characters are usually sharply and incisively drawn, here we get broad strokes that are supposed to pass for personality. Roland is a backwoods hick who wears a blue suit; Maguire is brash and idealistic; and Karen is, well, sort of a blank slate. In her defense (and Leonard’s, by extension), we learn at the very end of Gold Coast that that’s very much by design. But the problem is that the revelation in question (which I obviously won’t spoil here) doesn’t turn the book on its head like it should, so Karen just sort of remains a void. It’s unclear, then, why these two men are fighting over her other than the fact that she’s a 44-year-old woman with the body of a 25-year-old. On one hand that reveals some troubling gender politics; on the other hand, it’s not totally implausible that that would be enough for some men to drop everything and take up fisticuffs.
Without well-defined characters on which to hang his trademark dialogue, Leonard’s plot spins its wheels aimlessly. Things gradually become more and more convoluted to the point where the book’s relatively scant 218 pages actually felt too long. I usually breeze through Leonard’s stuff in a day or two; this one I struggled with. As I’ve written in multiple reviews, I don’t need to relate to characters to enjoy a book, but I do need characters. To crib shamelessly from Luigi Pirandello, Gold Coast is a story in search of three characters.
I know enough of Elmore Leonard’s career to know he recovers from this uncharacteristic lull (when Gold Coast was published, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch were still out of there on the horizon ten or more years in the future), but this is easily the first of his books I can’t enthusiastically recommend.
Radiohead – The Bends (1995)