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.
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.