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.

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?