The Prisoner of Cool

Elmore Leonard's talents have increasingly become cooped up in his hallmark tough-guy aesthetic

"A man can be in two different places," Elmore Leonard once wrote, "and he will be two different men." Leonard's own work suggests that the same can be said of a man writing in two different genres. Long before The Washington Post described him as "crime fiction's greatest living practitioner," he was writing novels about the old West, and in that genre he was a different man—addressing the reader directly, getting into his characters' heads, and engaging in other things he now dismisses as "hooptedoodle." Back then he was still immune to the silly idea that it's unrealistic to pit a very good person against a very bad one, so even in a short novel like Hombre (1961) the conflict seems thrillingly epic in scope. Without taking themselves seriously these are serious books, and one feels that what happens to the characters is important.

But by the mid-1960s the western was on its way out. Deciding to try something new, Leonard wrote a novel set in contemporary Michigan. The Big Bounce (1969) starts in a courthouse basement, where officials are watching footage of a laborer beating his supervisor with a baseball bat. Pausing the film at the final, jaw-breaking blow, one official reads out the victim's account.

"I reminded him that servicing the bus was part of his job, but he told me … to do the unprintable thing. One reason—"
"Excuse me," Mr. Majestyk said. "Larry, are those the words the guy used?"
The sheriff's officer hesitated. "They're, you know, writing words, the way you write it in a report."
"What'd Ryan tell him?"
"To go bag his ass."
"What's unprintable about that?"
"Walter—" The assistant prosecutor was looking at Mr. Majestyk, marking his place with the tip of his ballpoint pen.

A little later Majestyk is asked what he thinks. Looking at the screen, he answers, "I think he's got a level swing, but maybe he pulls too much."

This could not be further from the western Leonard. There are no good and bad guys here, only the cool, who cut through the crap either verbally or with a baseball bat, and the uncool, who use "writing words" and mark their places prissily with ballpoint pens. Where the writer's earlier work conveyed all the horror of violence—"About two o'clock in the afternoon the Favor woman started screaming" (Hombre)—we see an assault here only as a faded image on film. No writer can take violence seriously and joke about it at the same time, but it is significant that for the new Leonard the joke came first. At last he was in tune with the postmodern times.

The Big Bounce sold for six figures, and although Leonard wrote a few more westerns—he published Valdez Is Coming, his best novel of all, in 1970—he soon settled into stories with underworld themes. Ever since Glitz (1985) became a big best seller, his fame has grown steadily. Get Shorty (1990) and many of his other novels have been made into movies. He is now to America what Dick Francis is to Britain: an intellectually respectable source of light, manly reads. While Cindy Sheehan was demonstrating outside George W. Bush's Texas ranch, the president made a point of telling the press he was unwinding with a Leonard book. As if that weren't reason enough to be wary, critics call him "laugh-out-loud funny," one of those blurb phrases that every sensible book buyer knows from experience to mean You will hate this. In truth the baseball-bat joke above is a fair example of the humor in evidence, which I might as well confess does nothing for me. And yet fans regard Leonard not as a comic novelist but as a crime writer who is great because he is funny. In the front matter of a recent novel a Denver newspaper is quoted elliptically as saying, "Grade A … Comic characters and hilarious scenes … Leonard puts most of today's crime writers to shame." The Detroit News raves, "Nobody … can match his ability to serve up violence so light-handedly." I couldn't agree more, the average serial-killer tale being less hilarious than today's reader has a right to expect. But humor is relaxing. When it comes to suspense I know plenty of crime writers—I know plenty of Brontë sisters—who can knock Leonard into a cocked hat.

In most of his novels the cool are to be chuckled with and rooted for, the less cool to be chuckled at and rooted against. Coolness itself is taken very seriously. For the crime-fiction Leonard, coolness is all about making things look easy, but readers may find themselves wishing he devoted more attention, as he did in his westerns, to just what is being made to look easy. True cool is the hero of Hombre, a white man raised by Apaches, leading whiny settlers through the desert without so much as a backward glance; it is not beating someone with a baseball bat, or throwing rocks through windows at a girl's bidding, as Ryan does later on in The Big Bounce. Speaking of girls, Leonard often invites us to marvel at how laid-back his heroes are in the presence of their tans and high "cans"; this is the coolness aspired to by teenage boys. There is also plenty of nasty bully-worship; Bandits (1987), for example, would have us chuckle with a thuggish bartender who intimidates people into paying inflated checks.

And yet Leonard is such an original storyteller that one can find his world distasteful and still be drawn into it. Strange as it may seem, the challenge of finding a character not too unpleasant to care about, and of predicting what will bring everyone together, is a large part of what makes his opening chapters so irresistible. We seem to be watching real events develop of which the novelist himself knew nothing in advance. And just as in a B movie full of unknowns, there's no telling who will make it to the end.

Now eighty, Leonard has explained his craft as a matter of avoiding adverbs and imagery, using only the word "said" to carry dialogue, and doing everything else possible to make himself "invisible." In an age when so many writers complain about the inadequacy of verbal expression, yet for some reason refuse to take up pottery instead, it is refreshing to see someone put all his trust in lean English. The economy with which Leonard creates his characters and locales is extraordinary, and the further afield he goes, the more vivid he gets; Pagan Babies (2000) is worth reading for its depiction of Rwanda alone. Adverbs and metaphors are such a big part of normal speech that by avoiding them he makes himself more visible than he thinks, but the stylization is so skillful that at first the reader is only aware of being moved vigorously along. As many admirers have remarked, there are no slip-ups or false notes: everything is "planed flat," Martin Amis has said, with nothing "sticking out." Almost nothing stands out either, but the more one reads these days, the more one is pleased by the absence of badness. It's like watching a skater take the ice after everyone else's failed jumps and execute a perfect series of figure eights.

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B. R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

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