If he weren’t known as a master of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard would be recognized as one of our best writers of romantic comedy.
In the movies now, romantic comedies are little more than Oprah-ized discussions on the state of our relationships, therapy sessions with an implied laugh track. At heart, though, romantic comedy has always been a tough-minded genre. Even when the couple had passed the tests before them, the fade-outs usually offered only the certainty that what lay in front of these new lovers was the hard work of living. At its best — The Lady Eve, Holiday, or even the recent Ghost Town — romantic comedy is not for wimps.
Elmore Leonard is not a wimp. The male-female relationships in his novels are so believable because even the younger characters come with some wear on them. Think of his pairings: the airline stewardess and the bail bondsman in Rum Punch (the basis for Quentin Tarantino’s great Jackie Brown); the Detroit cop and the lingerie model in Mr. Paradise; another Detroit cop and the reporter who stumbles onto a great story in Split Images; the two recovering alcoholics in Unknown Man #89; and of course the veteran bank robber Jack Foley and the federal marshal Karen Sisco in Out of Sight (forever in our minds, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s film).
Leonard has a feel for the anti-romantic wisecracking that functions as verbal foreplay between his lovers, and a knowledge of the contingencies that keeps the stars out of their eyes. He’s also scarily adept at the love affairs that don’t work out. His 1989 Killshot (the basis for a terrific but maltreated movie shortly to appear on DVD) is one of the best portraits of a loving, crumbling marriage that I know, and I’d take it any day over the revered miserabalism of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road.
Leonard’s new novel, Road Dogs, isn’t exactly a romantic comedy. But the dirty crackle of sex races through it. His pair might be more in lust than in love, but again Leonard offers the wry spectacle of two headstrong people bumping up against each other, not always pleasurably. One half of the equation is Jack Foley, returning from Out of Sight. He’s not the only Leonard character to make a bow. Figures from Riding the Rap, La Brava, and Maximum Bob make an appearance.
In Road Dogs, Foley, returned to the joint after the brief taste of freedom he enjoyed in Out of Sight, makes the acquaintance of Cundo Rey — rich and crooked in equal measure –and becomes his buddy. Cundo shows his appreciation by fixing Jack up with a hotshot lawyer who gets Jack’s 30-year sentence reduced to time served.
Unexpectedly free, Jack becomes Cundo’s L.A. house guest, where he’s supposed to await his benefactor’s imminent release while hatching a plan to work with Cundo’s lady, Dawn. Dawn is — you should pardon the expression — a spiritualist. Her scam is to convince rich women that a meddlesome spirit (usually a spouse who’s shuffled off this mortal coil) has returned to cause trouble. Jack will play the part of the specialist who can rid the abode of the unwelcome ectoplasmic visitor.
You’d have to be awfully slow to hear that setup and not figure out that Jack and Dawn wind up in the sack — and that Dawn has plans for Cundo’s money that don’t include Cundo.
Maybe Elmore Leonard’s knack for writing sex scenes has to do with the fact that he never loses sight of the laughs that lovemaking can entail. Instead of the mush of afterglow, Leonard gives us this exchange after Dawn and Jack’s first dalliance:
“Did you have a good time?”
“My heart,” Foley said, “soared like a hawk.”
And because the sex here is inextricable from the scheming, there’s a dirty kick to it, an extra seasoning of the forbidden.
The offhand expertise of an old pro is most visible in Road Dogs in the way Leonard treats a Postman Always Rings Twice scenario with casual humor. Dawn — a sexpot who makes sure her bed partners keep their eye on her bottom while she keeps hers on the bottom line — is as untrustworthy as any femme fatale. But Leonard is having too much fun delineating her guile to get distracted by her smolder.
Where Road Dogs goes wrong is in what distracts the reader. Leonard sets up too many complications surrounding Jack and Dawn — a rogue FBI agent convinced Jack is about to return to his larcenous ways; the former gang member the agent hires to keep an eye on Jack; Cundo’s trusted business partner, charged with ensuring Dawn’s chastity and keeping Cundo’s coffers stocked. It’s not just that these plotlines obscure the main story — at times they make it hard to say what the main story is. Part of that problem is that Leonard has relied here almost entirely on dialogue. You can hardly blame him. Martin Amis famously said that both he and Saul Bellow felt that “for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there no one quite like Elmore Leonard.” Road Dogs, though, offers a bit too much of a good thing. Leonard’s touch is as sure as ever. He is one of the masters of voice in contemporary fiction. But at times this story can make you feel as if you are making your way through a thicket of voices, trying to keep the motive of each separate one clear.
And it has to be said, the two women that the book pays attention to — Dawn and the widowed Hollywood actress Jack ends up keeping company with — aren’t as interesting as the women who make brief appearances: Karen Sisco, testifying on Jack’s behalf at an early trial scene, or Megan Norris, the lawyer who gets Jack his freedom, seemingly without effort.
The disappointment that Karen Sisco appears in only one scene is easy to understand: She and Foley were such a memorable combination in Out of Sight that you can’t blame the reader for wanting more. The disappointment that Megan Norris is such a brief presence requires a little more explanation. Like Howard Hawks, Elmore Leonard adores strong, competent women, and Megan’s few scenes set you up to believe she’s going to be a major character.
Given the fact, though, that Road Dogs is an extended bow by what might be called the Elmore Leonard Players, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her return in the future. If Road Dogs is a flawed entertainment, it’s still a new Elmore Leonard novel. And like the stash that Cundo has hidden away, that ain’t hay.