Elmore Leonard, Bad Guys

October 11: On this day in 1925 Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans. Leonardspent most of his first decade in the South, moving from city to city as hisfather scouted dealership sites for GM. By the time he was ten, Leonard’sfamily had settled in Detroit, and his David Copperfield years—one early reviewlabeled Leonard the “Dickens of Detroit” and this has stuck—werespent in an All-American way: quarterback of the football team, pitcher for thebaseball team, a casual approach to school, and a writing career which began inthe advertising department of Chevrolet. Leonard’s adman specialty was trucks,and in one of his rejected ads, based on an endorsement sent in by one trucker,we perhaps see the future novelist: “You don’t wear that sonofabitch out,you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.” Leonard turnedthis sort of dialogue into his stylistic goal: “If it sounds like writing,I rewrite it.” The result, says Martin Amis in The War Against Cliché, is “literary genius” whichcapitalizes on a postmodern world of “wised-up rabble and zeroauthenticity”:

His characters areequipped not with obligingly suggestive childhoods or case histories, but witha cranial jukebox of situation comedies and talk shows and advertising jingles,their dreams and dreads all mediated and secondhand. They are not lost souls ordead souls. Terrible and pitiable (and often downright endearing), they aresimply junk souls: quarter pounders, with cheese.

Leonard resists suchanalysis, preferring to talk about bad guys and good guys and the gray area in between:

When I’m fashioning my badguys, though (and sometimes a good guy has had a criminal past and then he cango either way; to me, he’s the best kind of character to have), I don’t thinkof them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal peoplewho get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have forbreakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother,and then they rob a bank. Because that’s the way they are….

Read our 2009 interviewwith Elmore Leonard.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.