Easy as Breathing

Out of sightHeresy: As much as I love books, as long as I’ve been reading, and even considering the degree to which I extol the importance of literature to anyone who will listen, I love movies more.

It’s true.

If I were forced to make a choice between the two, movies would win, every day of the week.  Don’t get me wrong: I love savoring authors’ language, diving deeply into story, and making personal relationships with characters, and it’s no joke that reading is a more complex intellectual task than passively watching a film for two hours.  As a teacher (and teacher educator), I can’t underscore enough the importance of being a regular reader, and of challenging ourselves to read things that force us to grow in ability and humanity.  But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t always found movies more immediate, more affecting, more visceral.  And maybe most importantly, I find myself becoming more emotionally invested in movie characters than I do in most book characters.

To top it off, some of the authors I currently love might never have popped up on my radar without the benefit of smart, talented directors (whereas I can rarely say a book has turned me on to a good movie).  Elmore Leonard is Exhibit A and probably the best example I can use.  I’d heard the name growing up but always associated it with boring genre fiction – hackneyed potboilers written to make a buck, just a step up from the Harlequin romance novels whose covers I giggled at as a kid.  It wasn’t until the solid-gold mid-90s triptych of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch), Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and especially Steven Soderbergh’s masterful adaptation of Out of Sight that I sat up and took notice.  There was clearly more going on here that I originally thought, and after poking around a little I suddenly realized the esteem attached to Leonard’s name: the master of the modern American crime novel and quite likely the best writer of dialogue in the game.

Now, after reading fifteen of his books, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to review Out of Sight, a book based on a movie I adore which I’ve seen probably a dozen times.  In other words, this will be short, because the movie is so indelibly scrawled in my mind.  The book isn’t lacking (it’s Elmore Leonard, after all), but I’ve lost the ability to take it as its own entity.  As I read, it was impossible not to see George Clooney as master thief Jack Foley or Jennifer Lopez as U.S. marshal Karen Sisco (even though in the book she’s blonde) or Ving Rhames as Foley’s good hearted accomplice Buddy (even though in the book he’s a white Southern redneck).  I heard their cadences in Leonard’s typically whip-smart dialogue and saw their faces as each scene played out.  It ceased, in other words, to be a pure reading experience and became a weird amalgam of movie and book, which is something I’ve never experienced to this degree.

One thing I’ll say is that Out of Sight is (along with Get Shorty, maybe) the best entry point to Leonard’s work.  Leonard plays with his usual tropes – especially his tendency to people his books with con men who aren’t nearly as clever as they think they are and brassy dames who are the smartest people in the room – in ways that are so original that they cease being tropes.  Jack and Karen’s halting romance – they’re thrown together when he breaks out of jail and she’s an unwitting witness to the escape – seems inevitable despite its unlikeliness.  They Meet Cute™ in a way that’s typically Leonardian – crammed together in Buddy’s trunk as he speeds away from the jail – and the two characters’ spiky banter (about Three Days of the Condor and Jack’s bank robbing CV) betrays their tentative attraction to each other, despite being at opposite ends of the career spectrum.  The job of the rest of the book is to keep them apart – while Jack and Buddy plan one last huge job in Detroit and Karen tries to track them down.  We know they’re  going to meet up eventually, and the romantic promise of that first claustrophobic encounter hangs over everything.

The problem, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is that my familiarity with the movie means I don’t really know how effective this situation is for those who come to the story cold.  It feels like it works – Leonard’s characters and dialogue are as sharply-drawn as ever, and the plot is lacking some of the overly complex twists I’ve occasionally found distracting  in his other books – but there’s just no good way for me to judge.  I know too much.

*****

Current listening:

Television marquee

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)

 

Adventures in Dementia

sleeeping-while-drinking-coffee

Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

Tired Angles Make New Shapes

Elmore catBalancing 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 bookMoran 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.)

*****

Current listening:

Ryley primrose

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (2015)

Through the Knowledge of Those Who Observe Us

don pointFull disclosure: I often start writing these reviews while I’m still reading the book.  I am, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, unforgivably lazy about writing.  I enjoy the process on some level, and it’s kinda fun when I experience one of those rare moments where I return to something I’ve written and think, “Hey, that’s not entirely horrible.” But the truth of it is that there are always other things I’d rather be doing, and none of them require as much effort as sitting down to crank out (optimistically, when it comes to these reviews) 1,000 words or so.  I’ve found the only significant way I can generate some momentum and enthusiasm for the act of writing these recent posts is to begin composing them before I sit down to type.  This gives me direction and purpose, and it prevents the paralysis I occasionally feel when faced with blank screen and blinking cursor.  So there are times when I know by the midpoint of a book what angle I’m going to take, or, in the case of something like Andy Weir’s The Martian, I can tell the book is irredeemably stupid and I’m not at risk of having my negative review ruined by an abnormally high-quality closing chapter.  In those cases I might have already written the opening paragraph or two before I actually finish the last page of the book.

But there are also, I have to admit, times when I begin mentally composing the review before I’ve even started reading the book.  Such was the case with Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which I knew was next in line following Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast.  These things I also knew:

  • I’m a huge fan of Leonard, and it seemed unlikely I’d be writing him a negative review.
  • I used to love DeLillo, but his recent works have left me cold, especially The Body Artist, which I read a mere three months ago but about whose plot I remember absolutely nothing.
  • I’ve never written a combo review before.  Wouldn’t it be swell if I wrote a single review linking these two books, specifically focusing on the degree to which Leonard’s early genre fiction was superior to DeLillo’s recent highbrow fiction?

I worked my way through Gold Coast with this framework in mind, already picturing the way I was going to assert my populist preference.  And then the following two things happened:

1) Gold Coast wasn’t very good.

2) Point Omega was fantastic.

So back to the drawing board and a single review of Point Omega, a short book of palpable melancholy that somehow manages to simultaneously be about three specific people and everyone in the world.

It’s a book where summary is almost beside the point.  I’ll try anyway.  Elster, one of the architects of the second Iraq War, is in a cabin in the middle of the Arizona desert with Finley, a documentarian who’s trying to convince Elster to allow him to make a Fog of War-style movie with Elster as the focal point, telling his story against a blank wall, no questions, no stock footage, just one man talking and telling his side of the run-up to the war.  Elster’s daughter Jessie shows up, then she disappears.  The men look for her.  They go home.  This is bookended by two short scenes that take place at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been slowed down to last 24 hours.  And that’s it.

Taken at face value, its another of DeLillo’s exercises in minimalism (see also Falling Man and Cosmopolis, neither of which I enjoyed as much as his early works like White Noise and Libra), but as I mentioned earlier there’s a deep core of melancholy at Point Omega’s center, not just in the stark desert setting or Elster’s near-catatonia when Jessie disappears.  It suffuses everything, and to that end it’s a book that needs to be experienced more than explained.

“Oh ha ha, Rob,” you’re saying.  “Experienced more than explained.  What the hell does that mean?”  Well, if I can get even more pretentious for a second, the action in Point Omega isn’t in the action.  Hikes in the desert, Jessie’s arrival, the search after she’s gone – these are almost irrelevant.  The action is in the spaces between this movement, in passages of relative inaction, when we get dialogue like this, from Elster, reflecting on his approach toward the Iraq War:

‘Haiku means nothing beyond what it is.  A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind.  It’s human consciousness located in nature.  It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count.  I wanted a haiku war,’ he said. ‘I wanted a war in three lines.  This was not a matter of force levels or logistics.  What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.  This is the soul of haiku.  Bare everything to plain sight.  See what’s there.  Things in war are transient.  See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.’

Can I say with any authority what Point Omega is about?  Not really.  But as many problems as I have with latter-day DeLillo, there’s one thing about his most recent books that I like quite a bit: their sparseness makes them literary Rorschach tests, open to a range of interpretations.  Here’s how I made sense of it.  During one conversation, Elster describes the omega point as the time at which we “leap out of our biology” and into something else. With that in mind, Point Omega seems to be about the power of loss to jolt us out of one reality and into another.  Those times when we are most present, most alive, because we’ve had to watch the things we love fade away.

*****

Current listening:

Courtney sometimes

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

Don’t Let Me Bring You Down

Subtitle this one,Elmore gold “The Time One of My Favorite Authors Wrote a Book I Didn’t Like Very Much.”

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 PirandelloGold 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.

*****

Current listening:

Radiohead bends

Radiohead – The Bends (1995)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

The Immaculate Deception

elmore unknown manLike Ian Rankin (whose Black & Blue I recently reviewed and which, okay, was more teacher education Common Core navel-gazing than actual review), I’ve read a lot of Elmore Leonard since I began this little experiment without actually penning a full review.  This is the fifth of his books I’ve read since September (and the tenth overall), and while I’ve loved each and every one of them, this is the first one I’ve engaged with on an emotional level.  That immediately elevates it to the upper echelon of Leonard’s not-inconsiderable bibliography.

So, for the uninitiated, what’s so great about Leonard? Let’s start here: Without fear of hyperbole, he’s the greatest crime writer of the 20th Century.  Better than Chandler, better than Hammett, better than Ellroy, full stop, hands down.  Better even – whisper it – than Agatha Christie (although I think I’d be more likely to classify her as a mystery writer). Leonard didn’t invent the genre, but he polished it to a high sheen.  If you love crime novels – or even if you just appreciate them from a distance – Elmore does everything you love about them as well as it can be done.  Tough guys?  Check.  Street-smart broads?  You know it.  Double crosses and long cons? Done and done, without breaking a sweat.  Whip-smart dialogue that practically crackles on the page?  Absolutely.  And it’s all accomplished in unadorned prose that, like Kurt Vonnegut’s best work, seems effortless but is nearly impossible to replicate. (The quotes in blue peppered throughout the rest of this review are some of Leonard’s best tips for being a good writer.)

My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.

All of this is present and accounted for in Unknown Man #89, only with some added emotional heft. Jack Ryan is a Detroit process server – so charming and ingratiating that the served often don’t mind – who’s hired by a New Orleans businessman named Mr. Perez to track down the recipient of some shares of stock.  The stockholder turns up in the local morgue – toetagged with the words in the book’s title – and Ryan is then tasked by Perez with tracking down the deceased’s next of kin, his alcoholic wife, Denise.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Ryan eventually learns she’s living outside Detroit, and when he sets up shop there, he coincidentally runs into her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which is, to be fair, the only phony note in the whole book).  She’s cleaned up and tidied up, and what follows is a relatively quiet, surprisingly touching sequence where Ryan and Denise get to know each other, all without Ryan ever revealing who he is or why he’s there, choosing instead to enjoy his time with Denise rather than pursuing the job Perez set for him.  Perez, of course, has developed plans of his own, and sets himself to stealing the shares of stock – and the money they represent – for himself.  What follows is a series of feints and counter-feints, as Ryan and Denise set about double-crossing Perez with the help of a minor-league, big-hat-wearing criminal named Virgil Royal and a Detroit cop named Dick Speed.

Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.

In some ways it’s boilerplate Leonard.  Ryan is a tough-talker, Denise is too cool for school, and Perez (and his hired muscle, Raymond Gidre) are colorful con men who threaten their enemies by dangling them out a window.  Virgil is sort of a dummy, and his sidekick Tunafish is one step down from that.  But complicating things is the emotional gravity that has largely been absent from Leonard’s earlier works.  Perez’s first gambit to steal the money from Denise is actually to hire Virgil (like I said, double- and triple-crosses, and no allegiance save one is solid) to get her drunk and have her sign the papers.  The scene is, in a word, heartbreaking.  We first meet Denise in Detroit as a miserable drunk, and her transformation to the optimistic artist Ryan encounters in Rochester is dramatic.  But with one ill-intentioned, eminently selfish move, Denise is reduced once again to her messy, belligerent former self.  Ryan handles this with panache, kicking Virgil out of Denise’s apartment, sobering her up, and leaving with her for Florida the next day, where the two of them can get out from under Perez’s suffocating influence.  The halting romance that ensues is balanced on the knife edge between pragmatic and sentimental.  It’s a graceful sequence that looks nothing like anything Leonard had previously written.  It’s just a lull, though, as Ryan and Denise realize there’s a reckoning waiting for them in Detroit, and it needs to be resolved before they can ever truly settle down.  Blood will be shed.

I won’t read a book that starts with a description of the weather.

 

As my first proper Elmore Leonard review, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dialogue. It exists on another plane, the one where the characters might as well be speaking lines transcribed directly from a voice recorder planted in some seedy bar on the wrong side of the tracks.  I could share any number of exchanges, but I’m partial to this one between Ryan and Virgil, as Ryan prepares to initiate the next part of his plan:

‘I don’t see you doing much,’ Ryan said. ‘You want something, but I don’t see you breaking your ass especially to get it.’

‘I’m being patient,’ Virgil said, ‘waiting till everybody make up their mind.  You want a real drink this time?’

‘No, this is fine.’ Ryan still had half a Coke.  He watched Virgil nod to the waitress.  She was over at the bar where several black guys were sitting with their hats on, glancing at themselves in the bar mirror as they talked and jived around. ‘What’s this, the hat club?’ Ryan said. ‘There’s some pretty ones, but they can’t touch yours.’

Virgil was looking at him from beneath the slightly, nicely curved brim of his uptown Stetson. ‘I get my money, what’s owed me, I’ll give it to you,’ he said.

‘I’ll take it,’ Ryan said, ‘and everybody’ll be happy.  If we can get you to do a little work.’

‘What kind of work?’

‘First, how much we talking about?  What you say Bobby owes you?’

‘Half.’

‘Half of what I heard he got is nothing.’

‘No, I’m telling you. Round it off, ten grand,’ Virgil said. ‘Now you tell me, how much we talking about?  The whole deal.’

There’s a rhythm and cadence to all of Leonard’s dialogue – playful, but with the internal logic of really good jazz.  It rings true, and unlike a lot of dialogue, it just sounds good when read aloud.

Unknown Man #89 ends, as many of Leonard’s novels do, in a way that can best be termed “cautiously optimistic.”  The bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys get their reward – although it might look different than they thought it would – and the moral of the story, if there is one, seems to be this: “Be careful who you trust.”  But this ending resonates more for me than in Leonard’s other books because, for the first time, the main characters have suffered enough for us to want them to be happy.

*****

Current listening:

Frightened winter

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)