The Prisoner of Cool

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

In recent years Leonard has begun describing his style in the imperative. "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip," he wrote in a famous New York Times article in 2001, "[like] thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them … I'll bet you don't skip dialogue." Just thinking of the prigs who will squawk at this aesthetic makes one want to cheer it. A moment later one realizes that what Leonard is in effect advocating—and indeed, what he writes—are novels in which the characters spend most of the reader's time talking. Though pioneered a century ago by the English dandy Ronald Firbank, and then popularized by a man whose first name was Evelyn, the technique of letting conversation carry a story is regarded in America as the tough guy's way to write a novel, and Leonard makes no secret of his pride in it. Unfortunately, it compels him (as it did Firbank and Waugh) to stick to talkative characters. This excludes the true professionals on both sides of the law, leaving us with small-time cops and ex-cons who rarely keep quiet long enough to seem cool. They're street-smart for sure, but although the recurring interjection "The fuck'm I doing here?" certainly puts Sartre in a nutshell, no one seems to think about anything, at least not anything interesting.

It is the sound of his dialogue, not its content, that distinguishes Leonard from other writers. He grasps the American idiom in almost all its ethnic variations, and is strikingly good at rendering contemporary youth-speak, right down to that annoying interrogative lilt; I refuse to believe that this man wrote his first novel when Stalin was alive. But because the pleasure of reading authentic conversation wears thin fast, his better stories are the short ones—the westerns, some of the Detroit stories of the 1970s—and those in which he doesn't skimp on narrative. Here is a passage from Cuba Libre (1998), the best of the recent bunch.

Osma … saw the smoke burst from the muzzle as it fired and felt himself punched in the chest so hard he took a step back, still on his feet as the dun rode him down, slammed him flat on his back to lie in the dead leaves. Now he was looking at green ones hanging over him and part of the sky, not knowing how this could have happened. He said to himself, I was ready. Wasn't I ready? I was watching … Osma had time to think this before he saw the cowboy standing over him blocking the sky. He tasted blood in his mouth but couldn't swallow and felt it warm on his cheek. He saw the cowboy—his face with a beard he didn't have before, on the train, and a different hat—come closer to him to say in a voice he could barely hear, "This one's gonna do it, partner. Your luck's run out."

This is both thrilling and very sad. Note the Hemingway-style "and," so obtrusive in Cormac McCarthy's novels, more natural here than in Hemingway's own work. How can anyone write such wonderful prose, with a poet's sense of rhythm, and not want to write more of it? But Leonard followed Cuba Libre with Tishomingo Blues and Mr. Paradise, two more gabfests. It's time everyone stopped egging him on with nonsense about how his dialogue "crackles." In fact he is far too concerned with plausibility to let his characters talk more cleverly or succinctly than people do in real life.

"I stayed at the hotel. I took a room, see what it was like. You know that desk clerk Patti, blond, semi-big hair?"
"Yeah, Patti."
"She comped me."
"You dog. You seeing her?"
"She's way too young."
"And she's got that overbite," Vernice said, "we use to call buckteeth."
"She's nice though."
"She better be. You want some breakfast?"
"I've had my coffee."
"Sit down, I'll fix you some eggs …" (Tishomingo Blues)

Readers learn to recognize the words for whose savvy ring Leonard has a special affection; "comped" is one of them, and he will never let anyone just park a car when it can be "angle-parked." More to the point, one wonders whether this sort of chitchat is really authentic enough to justify its dullness. The screenwriter Richard Price has said that a Leonard line "looks great on the page, but when somebody is saying it, you feel like you have to stand up and say, 'Author! Author! Perfect ear!'" This is because the dialogue often serves no other purpose than to show off that ear. Besides, people may talk like that in real life but they don't hear like that; "use to," for example, draws more attention to the aural surface of speech than anyone would normally give it. There is a reason why the best novelists worry no more about authentic dialogue than is necessary to avoid outright stiltedness.

Leonard's latest novel is The Hot Kid. Set in Oklahoma in the 1930s, the story follows the converging paths of Carl Webster, a young U.S. marshal determined to become a famous lawman, and Jack Belmont, who is just as determined to become public enemy No. 1. Carl is part Cuban; like the hero of Valdez Is Coming, he is taunted as a "greaser." It's a shame Leonard lets his attention wander to minor characters instead of fleshing out his two appealing leads. But anyone who reads the first chapter—a wonderful short story in its own right—will probably care enough about the outcome to enjoy reading on to the last fifth of the book, which is almost as good. For a change the dialogue does more than show off a knack for mimicry. There is real sexual tension in scenes between the villain and his ladies, and a touching mood of love and peace in conversations between the hero and his father. The only implausible thing about Leonard's crime novels is the flippancy with which lives are taken, and The Hot Kid is no exception: a man and his lover talk about inconsequential things before he pulls out a gun and shoots her, the scene ending right there as if on a punch line. No longer amusing or startling, this sort of thing only makes the story seem pallid and unreal. It is unlikely that Leonard will be taken to task for it; book reviewers show their respect for older writers by expecting less of them. (Articles have already appeared that go from an indifferent synopsis to glib flattery about who the real "hot kid" is.) But there's no forgiving the book's air of smugness. Comic effect is derived from a journalist who likes a prose style at odds with Leonard's own.

They'd pay him two cents a word to start. He leafed through one of the latest issues to read a story that opened with "Light beams, sweeping the sky like flowing yellow ribbons against a backdrop of black, shone from the walls of the Colorado State Penitentiary one winter night in 1932."

He couldn't wait to start writing.

In Get Shorty the lean narrative contrasts with empty Hollywood chatter to hilarious effect. Here the joke backfires on the teller. It is as unnatural to narrate a book in purely literal language as it is to restrict oneself to it in daily speech, and after a few chapters with no imagery at all, those yellow ribbons look very pretty indeed. The reader manages the chuckle expected of him, but feels no hurry to move on.

It doesn't help that there is so little sense of time and place, despite constant reference to popular songs and fashions. Neither the Depression nor the Dust Bowl plays much of a role; the two main characters are both from wealthy backgrounds. Granted, everything ends in 1934, the year before the Sooner State tipped into utter misery, but this only raises the question why it isn't 1935. One might also ask why Leonard can't get that damned smile out of his voice even when he's describing a frightened girl with nowhere to go but a brothel. The answer lies in the tough-guy aesthetic he has spent too long cooping up his talent in: it just isn't man enough to handle any real drama.

At one point in the novel we sense what we are missing.

Joe Young picked up his gun and went around to open the cash register. Taking out bills he said to the woman, "Where you keep the whiskey money?"
She said, "In there," despair in her voice.

There is still enough of the western writer in Leonard for him not to have struck that last line, though it violates his current style in letter and spirit. We aren't supposed to notice how it jars with that famously light-handed approach to violence; nor, I suppose, are we to notice that "despair in her voice" is hardly less of an adverb than "despairingly" would have been. But there is more of 1930s Oklahoma in those four words than in all the novel's historical detail. What good is an aesthetic, if it has to be cheated into accommodating the things that count?

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

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