Balancing the tension between cynicism and romanticism has sort of been the story of my life. My default position is to be skeptical and automatically assume the worst. Most of the time I figure the world (globally, locally, personally) is teetering on the brink of some catastrophe, and it’s not unusual for me to assume that I play a major role in the disaster (literal or metaphorical) to come. I often can’t escape my tendency to question the motives of others, but because self-loathing is the bedrock on which my personality is built, I always figure it’s because of something I’ve done. And when the concerns are bigger than me or are things in which I don’t play a direct role … well, in those cases the glass is never empty enough.
That would be a horrible, horrible way to live if I didn’t also feel a strong undercurrent of optimism and joy. It’s in the way I’m uplifted by music and books and film, in my unwavering belief in the importance of education, and in the way I can be moved to tears by simple acts of kindness and commercials about neglected animals. And of course I feel it every single day because I happen to be married to a woman whose generosity, enthusiasm, and good humor knows no bounds. And this is why, as much as I respond to art that is, as Nigel Tufnel would say, none more black, I really connect with work that manages to be both bleak and hopeful.
I figured this out as I was reading Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser. In past reviews I’ve focused on Leonard’s whip-smart dialogue and strategic use of violence, the long cons and borderline nihilism, but what I’d never actually realized until reading Cat Chaser – a satisfyingly straightforward book that’s as much romance as crime novel – is that all his male protagonists are love-struck doofuses who are, above all else, unrepentant romantics. His main characters are often men, but careful readers will notice that his women are where it’s at. The men are the actors, but they’re usually acting at the explicit or implicit behest of the women they’ve gone goofy for.
In all Leonard’s books I’ve read – a dozen or so at this point – this is no more obvious than it is in Cat Chaser. Moran runs a down-on-its-luck hotel in Miami, Florida, and he connects – and connects in a big way – with Mary, the wife of Andres, a deposed Dominican general who’s remade himself as an American gangster. Most of the first half of the book is the story of how Moran and Mary meet, quickly fall in love, and realize she needs to extricate herself from her hugely unsatisfying marriage. Running parallel with the central love story is a typically Leonardian con: Jiggs Scully, a small-time enforcer and debt collector who’s worked for Andres in the past, tries to talk Moran into swiping the money he knows Andres must have squirreled away in case his Dominican past catches up to him and he needs to flee.
The most fascinating thing about the way the story plays out is how Leonard manages to paint Moran as both protagonist and bystander. He ostensibly agrees to Scully’s plan, but he’s never particularly interested in it, and he definitely doesn’t want to get in trouble. He mainly wants to help Mary get out of her marriage – and to that end, his biggest role in the heist is to make sure his relationship with Mary isn’t collateral damage in Scully’s plot to get rich quick. As a result, most of the crime elements in Cat Chaser – minus an absolutely virtuoso scene at the book’s climax – take place without Moran. Scully tries to manipulate Andres into fleeing by sabotaging and vandalizing his mansion – actions he wants Andres to read as increasingly violent political statements perpetrated by Dominican immigrants with an ax to grind. When Andres flees, or so the story goes, Scully will be there to catch him.
Despite all that, Leonard keeps the focus firmly on Moran and Mary, and this gives the danger presented by Scully’s plan real emotional heft. This couldn’t have been accomplished without the lengthy section in the book’s first half where Moran and Mary fall in love in the Dominican Republic, and this of course is further testament to Leonard’s craft. He trusts his readers to understand that without any emotional stakes in play the danger to Moran is strictly physical. It’s the emotional danger that sticks.
In the end, Moran makes a sacrifice that’s somehow satisfying, frustrating, and hopeful, all at the same time. That’s no easy feat. And I now see that it’s Leonard’s facility for this kind of thing that keeps this cynical romantic coming back for more.
(A word about that title. As with many of Leonard’s other books, the title Cat Chaser is more stylistic than meaningful. At the beginning of the book, Moran travels to the Dominican Republic. He saw combat there as a Marine in the 1960s, and was given the nickname “Cat Chaser” by Luci Palma, a 16-year-old female sniper he tangled with. Moran had always felt a connection with Palma, and his trip to the Domincan Republic was initially to track down Palma. He found Mary instead, and the rest is literary history.)
Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (2015)