The Streak

Was there an audible pop! or some high and urgent twanging of the ethereal membranes, the day the novelist realized that he could write a whole book without once mentioning the color of the hero’s hair? Scholarly friends have assured me that this discovery, or some version of it, was in the novel all along — that you can trace it back to Richardson and even Fielding, and then forward through Hemingway and Hammett, into hard-boiled, and so on. But I prefer to see it as a single, supreme Copernican moment, a revolution in perspective, a transfer of power from the tiny central orb of the writer’s intelligence to the cosmos of his readership. No need, in this suddenly reversed world, for the long paragraph describing the shape of somebody’s nose, their religious beliefs, or the weather outside the window. Overnight, this was the law: What the imagination needs, the imagination will supply. What it doesn’t need, by the same token, it will reject. And so, for the writer, it becomes a question of knowing which is which.

No one worked more fruitfully under the new dispensation than Elmore Leonard. The Dickens of Detroit, the Kepler of crime fiction, the Tesla of the trade paperback, the Augustine of the airport novel… Shall I keep going? His formational western phase once over, it was almost a novel a year from 1970 until his death this past August, each book as perfect — in its own way — as a scientific proof. Leonard’s Tenth Rule for Writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” A life’s work to arrive at that wisdom, beginning with a boyhood adoration of For Whom the Bell Tolls. “Hemingway didn’t have the language to write in the classical sense of the omniscient author,” he told biographer Paul Challen, “and it was the same with me.” His Mad Men years copywriting for the Detroit ad agency Campbell-Ewald (although he always disclaimed their influence) must have given him at least a minor apprenticeship in swing, tone, compression. A Chevrolet pickup truck campaign, for example, elicited this: “You can’t wear the sonofabitch out — you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.” And in 1972 he was further radicalized — literarily speaking — by George V. Higgins’s minimally descriptive, maximally seedy Boston noir The Friends of Eddie Coyle. (First line: “Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.”)  

By the mid-’80s, at any rate, Leonard was solidly in bestsellerdom, the fat of the land, lauded and blurbed by Stephen King over here and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt over there. Money and respect? Dangerous, very dangerous. A combination to kill one’s muse stone dead. He could have got bored or begun to repeat himself. Instead he hit what I propose to call The Streak: Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), and Get Shorty (1990). Three years, three radically different novels, three effortless expansions or elaborations of Leonard-ness. “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.” So begins Freaky Deaky — Instant Leonard, weighted just right, the eye hopping from clause to clause like one of those little bouncing balls on the screen of a karaoke machine. The line could read — by the old dispensation should read — “It was Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, and at two in the afternoon, with two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.” But it doesn’t, so where those words are missing we have negative space — a jazzily charged absence that defines the affect of the book. The inner ear picks it up, registers it, appreciates it. And the inner ear feels…cool.

It need hardly be stated, at this point, that we never discover the color of Chris Mankowski’s hair. Or his height, or the shape of his nose. The details will not detain us. A firm impression is created, nonetheless — a dent in the imagination, almost literally — of a man in early middle age, of middling build, medium-handsome, sure of himself physically, comfortable with risk, nothing to prove, and thinking just that little bit faster than anyone around him: the Elmore Leonard hero, habitué and veteran of negative space. Mankowski is on Detroit’s Bomb Squad, about to transfer to Sex Crimes, and he greets the bomb-on-his-last-day scenario with the weary respect that one accords a venerable cliché.

Let’s descend for a moment into pure critical bitchiness, and say that Freaky Deaky is the book about the-’60s-and-their-aftermath that Thomas Pynchon wishes he’d written: post-ideological comedy, Chris Mankowski sizing up the various ex-zealots that caper across his viewfinder, some of them still trailing the utopian fumes of ten years before. The radical children are all grown up — except that they’re not. Robin Abbott, a lethally alluring convicted system smasher who has been whiling away the years writing bonkbusters “with a lot of rape and adverbs” under her pen name, Nicole Robinette, has the itch again. She feels like blowing some people up. This time, however, she also feels like shaking some people down. The revolution is over: now she wants cash. Reenlisting her onetime partner-in-crime, Skip Gibbs, a ponytailed stuntman and dynamite expert, she zeroes in on the silver-spooned Ricks brothers, Woody and Mark, and their millions. Mark used to be hip, Woody was always lost in a mist of chemicals and show tunes — his needs are currently being served by his driver, Donnell Lewis, a former Black Panther angling for pole position in Mr. Woody’s will. Everyone has an agenda, everyone has a hustle (everyone, that is, but the millionaire blob Woody, floating foggily in his pool, a sponge for the designs of others).

Look at that: a whole paragraph of synopsis, and I’m barely getting into it. As parsimonious as he was with descriptions, adjectives, etc., Leonard’s approach to plotting was superabundant and improvisational. Tangents proliferate; characters think, think aloud, then think again. Stupidity, the repeated failure to get the point of what is going on, fascinated him. As a writer he more than suffered fools: he embraced them, the fool’s obtuseness allowing Leonard to deepen the realm of nuance around him, all the data the fool is not picking up. Take Deputy Marshal Ferris Britton, who barges into the middle of Killshot in his tight-fitting sport coat and — for the space of a few chapters — gate-crashes the novel. Quick setup: Wayne and Carmen Colson, pursued by a hit man and his sociopathic sidekick, are in the Federal Witness Security Program in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Ferris is supposed to keep an eye on them, help them settle in. But he’s an oaf and a lecher, and he wants Carmen to feel his biceps, and after she confronts him on his heavily sexualized bullying — “Take your shoulders and your wavy hair and leave, would you, please?” — he becomes a serious threat. Finally, he attempts to sneak up on her in the shower. “He said ‘Surprise!’ Yelled it out as he tore the shower curtain aside, ripping part of it off the rod…and stood looking at wet tile, the shower streaming into an empty tub. He stood there for several moments, as though thinking, well, she must be in there somewhere.” Then Wayne Colson, steelworker, cold-cocks him “as hard as he had ever swung a ten-pound beater,” and he’s out of the story. The point is that in the short arc of Ferris Britton you can feel a quite minor character — and a particularly stupid and limited one — quickening, oxygenating, gaining in definition under the benign curiosity of his author, right up until the moment the Fates cut his fictional thread. (When I interviewed Leonard in 2012, I asked him about Deputy Marshal Ferris Britton. He’d forgotten him completely.)

Killshot came right after Freaky Deaky, in 1989. My pulpy, puffy paperback copy of Freaky Deaky, in fact, appends a teaser chapter of Killshot — Leonard giving his readers what they want before they even know they want it. It’s a wild, action-packed, good-guy-versus-bad-guy book — definitely an example of what Leonard called his “eastern westerns” — but also more somber and more interior than its predecessor. The moral center of the book is Carmen Colson, and one strand of Killshot is the story of her marriage. Another is the strange pilgrimage of the existential hit man, Armand “the Blackbird” Degas. Degas is an Ojibway — his mobster clients call him Chief. As the book begins he is lying drunk in his hotel room, cursing the Toronto Blue Jays and staring at the cracks in the ceiling: “He believed it was time to get away from here, leave Toronto and the Waverly Hotel and he wouldn’t drink so much and be sick in the morning. Follow one of those cracks in the ceiling.” We’re tracing the grooves of the Blackbird’s booze-fuddled mind here, through the lurching run-on of that first sentence to the spooky pooling of consciousness that occurs in the second. “I’ve had characters who should have been alienated,”  Leonard once told an admiring Martin Amis, “but never felt, themselves, that they were.” Degas, from the inside and the outside, feels alienated. Where does the crack in the ceiling go? Like Auden’s crack in the teacup, it opens a lane to the land of the dead. Dark and heavy, soul-wounded but morally numb, halfheartedly seeking his roots in the woods and marshes of Michigan, Degas will shortly allow himself to be drawn into the orbit of the deranged yapping jailbird Richie Nix — and after that, it’s a one-way ride.

Movies are a “theme” across Leonard’s work, and so across these three books. Chris Mankowski in Freaky Deaky, suspended cop working the angles, gets little visionary swats of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon — the rumpledness and zaniness of Mel, his unpredictability making the actor a sort of spirit animal for him. Carmen Colson in Killshot, lost in her new non-life in the Witness Security Program, takes a shower and thinks about Jack Nicholson in The Passenger. “He knows, with his new identity, he’s in a dangerous business and there are men after him. But he doesn’t seem to care, he’s only concerned with escaping the past. So he lets his new life happen. He lets it carry him along as a passenger to the end…” And Chili Palmer in Get Shorty — Chili the serene enforcer who knows the score, knows the scam, knows what to say and what not to say — goes to Hollywood and gets into the movie business. Everyone has their part to play in an Elmore Leonard novel, and the guy who generally comes out on top is the guy who gives the impression of having read the whole script. No prizes for getting lost in your role. The movie star Michael Weir, acting natural in conversation with Chili, is a pastiche of authenticity. A drug mule arrives at LAX, obnoxiously deep in character: “A mean little Colombian dude… They saw that movie Scarface and turned into a bunch of Al Pacinos doing Tony Montana. Only they didn’t know how. They maintained a level of boring meanness.” And said fock a lot.

Professor Charles J. Rzepka, in his Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard (his analysis of Killshot is superb — a kind of poetic increase of the text) declares unequivocally that Get Shorty is Leonard’s “first meta-fiction.” I’m not so sure. True, the book writes itself simultaneously with the development of Chili’s movie idea — which turns out to be nothing more or less than the story of the book — but I cannot see Leonard lowering himself to meta, to that crude, split-brained level of consciousness. All the world’s a stage, I suggested to him during our 2012 interview. Might that be the key to his opus, the Grand Unified Theory of Elmore Leonard? He smiled, mildly baffled — theory was alien — and went on talking about the movies.