The Barnes & Noble Review
Elmore Leonard Does It Again!
Without a doubt, Elmore Leonard is not only one of the most accomplished authors around, he's inarguably the coolest. Dubbed "the greatest crime author of our time, perhaps ever!" by the notoriously hard-to-please New York Times, Leonard follows the phenomenal success of Be Cool with his 36th novel, Pagan Babies. And it emerges as Leonard's funniest straight-faced novel to date with its most devilish, irresistible hero.
Leonard at His Best
Some years ago, Elmore Leonard offered an interviewer a memorably succinct description of his distinctive technique, stating, "I just try to leave all the boring parts out." During the course of a career that has spanned nearly 50 years and has produced more than three dozen books, he has held to this aesthetic principle with remarkable consistency. Anyone wanting to see how he does it should check out Leonard's latest. It's called Pagan Babies, and it's a textbook example of how to write fiction that is spare, fresh, funny, and absolutely boredom-free.
Pagan Babies opens in present-day Rwanda, a nation still haunted by the genocidal tribal conflicts of the mid-1990s, conflicts that resulted in the wholesale slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsi natives. At the center of the narrative is "Father" Terry Dunn, an American missionary who may or may not be a legitimately ordained Catholic priest and who is himself haunted by the memories of atrocities committed within his church. Terry's tenure in Rwanda comes toanabrupt end when he hears the confession of an unrepentant murderer and exacts an extreme and lethal form of penance. Immediately afterward, he leaves Africa and returns for the first time in more than five years to his home in Detroit and to the various complications some new, some old that are waiting for him there.
To begin with, Terry who has had a checkered, distinctly nonpriestly career must finally face a five-year-old indictment for cigarette smuggling and tax fraud. With the help of his brother Fran, a successful personal injuries lawyer, he cons the local district attorney a devout Catholic into dismissing all charges. In the process, Terry meets and falls in love with a former legal investigator named Debbie Dewey, whose own career is at least as colorful as Terry's.
When we first encounter her, Debbie is working as a stand-up comic in an entry-level Detroit comedy club. She is hungry even desperate for success and recognition, having just served a three-year prison term for aggravated assault. Debbie's assault conviction which forms the basis for one of her more colorful comic monologues was the result of a spontaneous attempt to run down the lowlife former boyfriend who lied his way into her life, then cleaned out her savings account before moving on to his next victim. When, shortly after her release, Debbie discovers that this larcenous ex-boyfriend (Randy Agley) is now a wealthy and successful restaurateur, she devises a scheme to divest Randy of a large portion of his newly acquired money. At this point, she enlists the assistance of her newfound friend and lover, Terry Dunn.
Initially, the scheme involves a staged "slip and fall" designed to net an out-of-court settlement of $250,000, to be divided equally between Debbie and Terry, who is acting on behalf of the orphaned children of Rwanda. However, since Pagan Babies is an Elmore Leonard novel, nothing goes off exactly as planned. Complications inevitably arise as a large cast of secondary characters interpose themselves between Debbie, Terry, and their projected payoff. Included among them are a number of figures from Terry's days as a part-time cigarette smuggler, an aging Mafia don with medical and legal problems, and a dimwitted hit man named Searcy J. Bragg, a.k.a. Mutt.
Pagan Babies is pure, high-grade Elmore Leonard, a first-rate entertainment that is alternately horrifying and hilarious, touching and grotesque. Leonard's cool, laid-back narrative voice, his pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and his characteristic ability to populate his stories with a varied and convincing assortment of characters are on full display throughout, from the opening sequences in war-torn Rwanda to the surprisingly moving conclusion. Like the best of Leonard's earlier fiction Glitz, Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, City Primeval Pagan Babies is hip, smart, and artfully composed, the unmistakable product of a modern master of the form.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction ofPeter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
THE CHURCH HAD BECOME a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years, though not lying where they had been shot with Kalashnikovs or hacked to death with machetes. The benches had been removed and the bodies reassembled: men, women and small children laid in rows of skulls and spines, femurs, fragments of cloth stuck to mummified remains, many of the adults missing feet, all missing bones that had been carried off by scavenging dogs.
Since the living would no longer enter the church, Fr. Terry Dunn heard confessions in the yard of the rectory, in the shade of old pines and silver eucalyptus trees.
"Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. It has been two months from the last time I come to Confession. Since then I am fornicating with a woman from Gisenyi three times only and this is all I have done.
They would seem to fill their mouths with the English words, pronounc-ing each one carefully, with an accent Terry believed was heard only in Africa. He gave fornicators ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys, murmured what passed for an absolution while the penitent said the Act of Contrition, and dismissed them with a reminder to love God and sin no more.
"Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. Is a long time since I come here but is not my fault, you don't have Confession always when you say. The sin I did, I stole a goat from close by Nyundo for my family to eat. My wife cook it en brochette and also in a stew with potatoes and peppers."
"Last night at supper," Terry said, "I told my housekeeper I'd enjoy goat stew a lot more if it wasn't so goddamnbony."
The goat thief said, "Excuse me, Fatha?"
"Those little sharp bones you get in your mouth," Terry said, and gave the man ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. He gave just about everyone ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys to say as their penance.
Some came seeking advice.
"Bless me, Fatha, I have not sin yet but I think of it. I see one of the men kill my family has come back. One of the Hutu Interahamwe militia, he come back from the Goma refugee camp and I like to kill him, but I don't want to go to prison and I don't want to go to Hell. Can you have God forgive me before I kill him?"
Terry said, "I don't think He'll go for it. The best you can do, report the guy to the conseiller at the sector office and promise to testify at the trial."
The man who hadn't killed anyone yet said, "Fatha, when is that happen? I read in Imvaho they have one hundred twenty-four thousand in prisons waiting for trials. In how many years will it be for this man that kill my family? Imvaho say two hundred years to try all of them."
Terry said, "Is the guy bigger than you are?"
"No, he's Hutu."
"Walk up to the guy," Terry said, "and hit him in the mouth as hard as you can, with a rock. You'll feel better. Now make a good Act of Contrition for anything you might've done and forgot about." Terry could offer temporary relief but nothing that would change their lives.
Penitents would kneel on a prie-dieu and see his profile through a framed square of cheesecloth mounted on the kneeler: Fr. Terry Dunn, a bearded young man in a white cassock, sitting in a wicker chair. Sideways to the screen he looked at the front yard full of brush and weeds and the road that came up past the church from the village of Arisimbi. He heard Confession usually once a week but said Mass, in the school, only a few times a year: Christmas Day, Easter Sunday and when someone died. The Rwandese Bishop of Nyundo, nine miles up the road, sent word for Fr. Dunn to come and give an account of himself.
He drove there in the yellow Volvo station wagon that had belonged to the priest before him and sat in the bishop's office among African sculptures and decorative baskets, antimacassars in bold star designs on the leather sofa and chairs, on the wall a print of the Last Supper and a photograph of the bishop taken with the pope. Terry had worn his cassock. The bishop, in a white sweater, asked him if he was attempting to start a new sect within the Church. Terry said no, he had a personal reason for not acting as a full-time priest, but would not say what it was. He did tell the bishop, "You can contact the order that runs the mission, the Missionary Fathers of St. Martin de Porres in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and ask to have me replaced; but if you do, good luck. Young guys today are not breaking down the door to get in the seminary." This was several years ago. Terry left the bishop shaking his head and was still here on his own.
This afternoon the prie-dieu was placed beneath a roof of palm fronds and thatch that extended from the rectory into the yard. A voice raised against the hissing sound of the rain said, "Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin," and started right in. "I kill seven people that time I'm still a boy and we kill the inyenzi, the cockroaches. I kill four persons in the church the time you saying the Mass there and you see it happen. You know we kill five hundred in Nyundo before we come here and kill I think one hundred in this village before everybody run away."
Terry continued to stare at the yard that sloped down to the road, the clay hardpack turned dark in the rain.
"And we kill some more where we have the roadblock and stop all the drivers and look at the identity cards. The ones we want we take in the bush and kill them."
The man paused and Terry waited. The guy wasn't confessing his sins, he was bragging about what he did.
"You hear me, Fatha?"
Terry said, "Keep talking," wondering where the guy was going with it.
"I can tell you more will die very soon. How do I know this? I am a visionary, Fatha. I am told in visions of the Blessed Virgin saying to do it, to kill the inyenzi. I tell you this and you don't say nothing, do you?"
Terry didn't answer. The man's voice, at times shrill, sounded familiar.
"No, you can't," the voice said. "Oh, you can tell me not to do it, but you can't tell no other person, the RPA, the conseiller, nobody, because I tell you this in Confession and you have the rule say you can't talk about what you hear. You listen to me? We going to cut the feet off before we kill them. You know why we do it? You are here that time, so you understand. But you have no power, so you don't stop us. Listen, if we see you when we come, a tall one like you, we cut your feet off, too."
Terry sat in his wicker chair staring out at the rain, the pale sky, mist covering the far hills. The thing was, these guys could do it. They already had, so it wasn't just talk, the guy mouthing off.
He said, "You going to give me my penance to say?"
Terry didn't answer.
"All right, I finished."
The man rose from the kneeler and in a moment Terry watched him walking away, barefoot, skinny bare legs, a stick figure wearing a checkered green shirt and today in the rain a raggedy straw hat with the brim turned down. Terry didn't need to see the guy's face. He knew him the way he knew people in the village by the clothes they wore, the same clothes they put on every morning, if they didn't sleep in them. He had seen that green shirt recently, only a few days ago . . .