Go West, Young Gangster

Review: Elmore Leonard, ‘Four Later Novels’

Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard / AP

Life’s a bitch and then you die. But if you’re tired of being a good little worker bee, have I ever got a writer for you: the later Elmore Leonard. The early Elmore—who lived a good long life, dying only in 2013 at the age of 87 after writing more than 40 novels—wrote Westerns. (Elmore—such a great name, we should use it. Besides, after reading hundreds of pages of his punchy prose, it’s hard to stand on ceremony: you feel as if you know the guy.) Even these early Westerns are classics of sorts: you may know "Hombre," which was made into a movie with Elmore’s almost exact contemporary Paul Newman in the lead role, who, before movies like "The Sting," did a series of movies starting with H, including "The Hustler," "Hud," and "Harper" as well as "Hombre." By the time Elmore got around to Get Shorty, the first of the four novels in this collection, he was 65 (1990) and had gotten funky. And he stayed funky.

By funky I mean: everything your office job is not. Presumably you try to do your work so your boss approves of you; you keep your desk clean and neat, smile at the annoying guy who works opposite you, don’t look for trouble on the way home, feed the cat, then go out with the broskys or girls, or pick up the dry cleaning for your significant other. Who knows, if you’re of a certain age and beginning to get paunchy in your gray flannel suit, maybe you even help the kids with their homework. You know. Act like a good citizen.

The problem is that all this good citizen business is boring, and that’s where Elmore comes in. In Elmore’s world, nobody is a good citizen. And as a result, their lives aren’t boring. In Elmore’s world, somebody is always trying to stiff, or off, or get away from, somebody else who’s also one step ahead of the law—or one step behind. The law is there, but the cool guys—and sometimes cool girls, like Jackie Brown in Out of Sight—manage to stay ahead of it. In rare cases the law is also cool, like Federal Marshall Karen Sisco from Rum Punch, who dresses in expensive duds, packs heat, and (what a meet-cute!) shares the trunk of a getaway car with the equally classy robber, where they talk about (what else?) classic Hollywood movies, and of course fall in love. Elmore’s later world is full of gangsters and sometimes those pursuing them—not so far from the sheriff and outlaw pairings of his early Westerns. Only the world has grown up since the OK Corral, and the United States has gotten richer. These outlaws live in cool places like Miami, Vegas, and LA, and have a lot more clothes, and a lot more stuff. Sure, they don’t keep it long. But it’s fun to read about.

Elmore appreciates nice threads. It’s not just the women who dress up in these books (one big scene of Rum Punch takes place in the fitting room of a classy boutique). The John Travolta character in the movie version of Get Shorty—his name is Chili Palmer in both book and movie—is a Miami Mobster who shoots another mobster for taking home from a restaurant his expensive leather coat and worries about how his hair is combed: the barber suggests "no part, like Michael Douglas in Wall Street". Robert Taylor (get the Hollywood reference here too?), the black Detroit mobster of Tishomingo Blues, is introduced as "a cool-looking young guy in pleated slacks, a dark silky shirt open to his chest." A few pages later Elmore realizes he hasn’t given us enough, and we’re told the slacks are "pale yellow" and the shirt "had a design in it that looked Chinese."

Dennis, the fellow Robert is talking to, dives off an 80-foot ladder into a pool, has as a job at hotels, and mostly wears a Speedo for his work, or otherwise jeans. But he makes up for it in cool. Of course, all these dudes do. In the case of Dennis, Elmore actually rates him, as if he were a combination of James Dean and Bo Derrick. "One to ten—ten being all the way cool—Dennis was about a seven this morning." Robert is cool too. And so are all the other guys and gals who populate the complex adventures of Elmore’s world of well-dressed low-lifes.

"Madcap" doesn’t do these plots justice. They’re a combination of Preston Sturges, the Keystone Kops, and Orson Welles. The Miami mob is movie-obsessed and feels right at home in Hollywood in Get Shorty. A jail escape ends in romance in Out of Sight, just like Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable or Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. An ageing high-diver gets mixed up with the "Dixie Mafia" and ends up in the middle of a Confederate Civil War re-enactment in Tishomingo Blues: "The Godfather" meets "Gone With the Wind." Money and dope meet in a hard-boiled dame in Rum Punch—anything with Barbara Stanwyck.

These books are already movies, all bam-bam action, all short son-of-Hemingway sentences. Somebody shoots somebody else dead on page 63 where it’s kinda funny, and by page 64 the cool anti-hero is off to shoot somebody else. Or steal something. Or pull the wool over somebody’s eyes. Just what doesn’t happen in your life. And none of it leaves any emotional scars, either on the characters or on us.

The plots may be made for chess masters who like to figure out complex and highly improbable puzzles, but the writing is for people with attention problems. Paragraphs are frequently a single short sentence: "The house was so quiet." In terms of writing, it’s all at the opposite end of the spectrum from Henry James. People think in fragments. "Maybe do one, hang it out there for about five beats. See what happens." In the Modernist masters of internal monologue, Joyce, Woolf and Svevo, these would all be pages long. People omit subjects whenever they can: "Don’t know." "Can’t say". They cuss. "The fock [sic—he’s Colombian] you talking about? … Give me the focking case!" Sentences are short and they never use them when a word will do: "He’s got a big nose," Chili said. "Prominent," Harry said.

At the end of Get Shorty, Elmore just gives up, with a wink to the reader: "Fuckin endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked." It’s Chili thinking, but it’s also Elmore. At the end of the movie of the same name, that of course wouldn’t fly, so there the characters are making a movie of what has just been happening to them with real movie stars playing the parts that other real movie stars (but real only to us, not to the world of the plot) were playing before them. Got it? Hollywood gangsters meet Fellini’s "8 ½." Cool.

Pauline Kael, the great New Yorker movie critic, called one of her collections of criticism Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Kiss kiss isn’t entirely absent from Elmore—there’s an occasional brief cut-away scene, like in the movies—you know, focking. But mostly it’s the other kind of bang bang, guys offing each other, parrying each other, trying to one-up each other. Dudes too old for the high school locker room but still dudes.

So they’re men’s adventure fantasies. Only not like the classic men’s adventure magazines of the 40s and 50s, where a single heroic muscle-bound adventurer rescues the wench from cannibals or takes on an army. Here there are no good guys. Sure, we root for the main character to get away with whatever low-life caper he or she is up to. But we don’t want to be him or her. Here, it’s not the hero but the exciting world that’s the fantasy—a world of the Wild West, Elmore’s roots, transplanted to cities and the mob.

So yes. It’s way more exciting than real life. But of course, it comes at a price: guys die, everybody is inches away from jail or going there, women are a sometime thing, and nobody lives to see his grandchildren. It’s just the opposite of what most of us work so hard to achieve.

Let’s admit it: it’s sad. Gangsters and cowboys, like in Elmore’s early Westerns, live on the fringes of the world most readers belong to: we can fantasize about being them, but their reality is pretty tawdry. Cowboys are always drunk and out of cash and have a sore butt from all that range riding. Gangsters—well, it’s a safe bet they’re going to end face down in a plate of spaghetti.

I’m not so sure how well this world of cool low-life violence plays in our post-9/11 world, where terrorists blow up real people in cafés and mow them down in trucks. Nowadays it seems as if the boring predictable lives we work so hard to keep alive are worth preserving. So these shotgun marriages of comedy and criminals feel vaguely dated: we keep waiting for Humphrey Bogart to pop up and snarl at us.

Maybe that’s their charm.