When we moved here in January, I set out to educate myself about my new hometown. I read this, that and the other thing, but I always saved room for dessert — the Detroit novels of Elmore Leonard.
Leonard is one of the metro area’s most famous residents, in the way writers are famous; you might see him in the airport, but you wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to go up and say hello. This has never happened to me. I would definitely say hello. Then I might ask to touch the hem of his garment. He’s really that good.
I’d already read them all, but it was wonderful to read them again. I started with “Mr. Paradise” and sort of meandered through the back catalog, re-reading the way I always do, paying special attention to a different aspect of the book than I did the last time, in this case the setting. (I’m a dedicated re-reader. I’m convinced this is what separates readers from writers. Readers read a book once and put it on the shelf. Writers read and re-read, and re-re-read. We want to crack the code. I’m embarrassed to think of how many times I’ve re-read “Gone With the Wind,” one of the world’s greatest bad books. Let me tell you this: You haven’t read GWTW until you’ve read it from a feminist perspective.) I think I covered all the Detroit-based books — “City Primeval,” “Pagan Babies,” “Killshot” (Port Huron, really), “Out of Sight,” “Freaky Deaky,” “Switch,” “Swag,” “Unknown Man #89” and I’m surely forgetting a few more. Then, because that was so much fun, I’m delving into the Florida books. This week: “Riding the Rap.”
I’d forgotten most of this one, and I’m wondering why. The first chapter is a beautiful self-contained short story; in fact, I think I first read it in a fiction issue of The New Yorker. The rest of it doesn’t disappoint, either. One of the bad guys is a middle-aged screwup, living in his mom’s big oceanfront house and waiting for her to die of Alzheimer’s in her Palm Beach nursing home. There’s a section where the main character, a cop, goes to visit her. She’s out of it, talks about people stealing her piano and how she wants to get out of this place and on and on. A Jamaican nurse moves in and out of the room, filled with pictures of its occupant in the proverbial happier days. Anyone who’s been in a similar situation would recognize every detail. And then, this:
Something’s going on,” the old lady said, “and I think it’s that Victoria who’s behind it. She’s another of the Jamaicans.”
“I’ll speak to her,” Raylan said.
“Would you do that? I’d be so grateful.”
The old lady’s eyes shining with hope, or just watery; Raylan wasn’t sure.
“If she denies it,” Ms. Ganz said, “tell her she’s a lying fucking nigger. That’s what I do.”
Boom, curtain, blackout, smash cut to the next scene. In one sentence, out comes the rug, there’s an ice cube down your back and you see, justlikethat, how the bad son didn’t fall far from the tree. I love that. Other writers would waste a page laying that out, and Leonard gets it done in a sentence.
Every city should have a novelist like this. We’re so, so lucky that this one is ours.
Bonus: Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing.
UPDATE: I just swapped out the link above for the version on E.L.’s own website, which is the same but much, much better. Thanks, David, for the tippage.
mary said on September 8, 2005 at 10:04 pm
I’m a re-reader of certain authors. Actually of some really awful things as well. Anything by Walker Percy or Cormac McCarthy gets more than one go. I mentioned a while back I re-read Will by G. Gordon Liddy, also Blood and Money by Tommy Thompson and forgive me, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. I have no explanation for my tastes in books. Right now on the night stand is Gilead, waiting for me, and Bill Clinton’s book. When I finish them, I’ll likely re-read the Philip Roth novel. I really like that book, and I feel like I need to pay closer attention to some things next time around.
I also have a sick fascination with books about Ted Bundy. His crime spree hit Golden, Colorado, when I lived there. He picked up girls who were riding bicycles (which I did a lot of when I lived in Golden) and who had long brown hair (I did) parted in the middle (yep) or lived in ground floor apartments (yes again). Golden’s not that big a town. I like to tell myself I dodged the Ted Bundy bullet. Okay, lots of people did, but maybe it came closer to me.
Amy Alkon said on September 8, 2005 at 10:16 pm
I highly recommend “The Hot Kid.” Best to read it right away, because a serial that continues the characters will be coming out in the NY Times soon.
alex said on September 9, 2005 at 12:15 am
I re-read a lot, especially anything that makes me bust a gut with every sentence. Two books in particular have me rolling on the floor laughing like that�Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” and Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckenridge,” both copyrighted 1968.
The sequel to “Myra” is also a hoot�although I understand the Farrah Fawcett/Mae West movie of “Myra” was such a bomb it destroyed the sales of the book, as well as what followed. (In the sequel, Vidal’s conceit was to use the names of the Supreme Court justices of the era in substitution for vulgarities, i.e., that a plastic surgeon could recontstruct a Whizzer White along with a new set of Powells.) Vidal’s books of essays, readily available in any used bookstore, are also good for LMFAOs. One can be totally outside Vidal’s hifalutin’ circles and yet get hooked into the high dramas of high society. He ravaged the Reagans twenty years before Kitty Kelly and did it far better in only a few paragraphs. (In fact, in a single sentence, he summed up Nancy Davis Reagan as a casting-couch hussy who didn’t have the goods to make it in the biz.)
I aspire to write like those who make me laugh. I fall way short most of the time, but persevere just the same.
Dorothy said on September 9, 2005 at 9:22 am
When I did not work 40 hours a week, I was a regular reader, and I do re-read some things. I, too, have read GWTW, Nance (four times), and can’t explain why. Lately I’m lucky to get through TIME magazine and my daily newspaper on a regular basis.
I think Mary, Alex, Brian, and many others who read your blog and chime in with comments are all very gifted writers. It’s why I read you so often. I’m always moved and filled with awe when I realize the intelligence of the folks who “meet” here.
When I was in 7th grade, Joyce Marco and I used to write stories and we’d swap and read each other’s stuff. I always thought I’d be a writer some day, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not good at keeping a journal, but I swear in my head I am writing daily, if not hourly. Maybe I’ll be the Grandma Moses type and erupt with greatness around the age of 72!
mary said on September 9, 2005 at 11:24 am
Yes, Fred Exley. How did I forget A Fan’s Notes. I re-read some Kurt Vonnegut recently before passing it along to my fifteen year old. I still like those books a lot.
You might notice same son wearing a Hunter Thompson tee shirt in the photo of him with the new pup. He and his friends discovered Hunter shortly before Hunter did himself in. I can’t imagine the fifteen year olds getting some of the things in the Fear and Loathing books. I remember laughing out loud at the description of “Debbie Reynolds in a silver afro wig, yukking across the stage to Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
This son, by the way, is re-reading Catcher in the Rye. He had it as an assignment last year, but is reading it for pleasure now. Atta boy.
brian stouder said on September 9, 2005 at 10:10 pm
I confess I’m not much of a re-reader; but also, I go for non-fiction – and probably every other book I’ve read in the past 5 years is related to Lincoln, so in that way I keep covering the same ground, albeit at different altitudes and directions.
But I am a movie re-watcher, and dvd’s with all the features and so on (especially the ones that have a running commentary from the director) feed that fever.
mary said on September 10, 2005 at 2:40 am
A good re-read right now would be the first in the Robert Caro Lyndon Johnson trilogy. He talks a lot about a company called Brown and Root. They put a lot of money and effort into LBJ’s political career in order to get state contracts, later federal contracts for major construction projects. They’re known now as Kellog, Brown and Root,or KBR, and they’re a subsidiary of Haliburton.
Dave said on September 10, 2005 at 12:52 pm
I started reading everything Elmore Leonard had written after I read about him in a newspaper column, circa 1985 or so. Before that, I’d never heard of him but I guess I should tell you that I read about him in a Bob Greene column. Funny.
basset said on September 10, 2005 at 4:17 pm
“Killshot” got me interested in Leonard – such well-drawn characters, such wonderful dialogue, and full of human touches like Carmen, when she first starts getting interested in Wayne, going 45 minutes out of her way just to kinda accidentally drive past the construction site where he’s working.
not that real-world women would ever do anything like that.
coincidentally, I’m about halfway into part three of the Caro LBJ series. Caro describes how Johnson, when he was in Congress and the Senate, used to drive to Capitol Hill every morning in full road rage, passing on the right, screaming at anyone in front of him who didn’t instantly get out of his way, bullying the parking-lot attendant when he arrived… yes, I know the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have passed without him, but that description’s just one more of many reasons he must have been pretty repellent on a personal level.
mary said on September 10, 2005 at 6:50 pm
LBJ also used to ridicule Lady Bird for being a re-reader. She was never confident about her own intelligence around him, and read books at least twice to make sure she understood them. I feel the need to re-read Caro coming on.
basset said on September 11, 2005 at 12:57 am
This is the first time around on Caro for me… got the first volume in trade paper & was waiting to complete the set. second one for $4.98 off a remainder table at Davis-Kidd in Nashville nearly five years ago, third one the same place but last month and two dollars more.
political history is usually a topic I avoid on sight, but Caro and McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman just hit the spot somehow.
hey, I’m just happy to have gotten a response… usually anything I post on here kills the thread right then and there.
brian stouder said on September 11, 2005 at 11:28 am
“McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman just hit the spot”
I picked up that one in trade paper back off a -root-through-it table of books a few years back (I love those minimalist stores! You’re sure to find a treasure if you root around long enough) and read it just before the 2000 election.
It struck me as interesting how similar the 1948 and the 2000 race was, right down to Dewy running as a “uniter” and refusing to argue about issues. (maybe if W had a mustache, Gore would have won)
In fact currently I’m reading McCullough’s book on John and Abigail Adams – which I got a Christmas ago and just recently cracked open.