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Life of Crime

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Elmore Leonard: Making Crime Pay in Miami in STICK

February 20, 1983,
BYLINE: JONATHAN YARDLEY

THE LINE BETWEEN genre fiction and literature can be a thin one, and from time to time those of us in the reviewing business like to nudge a writer across it. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, P.D. James, George V. Higgins, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Dick Francis—these and other masters of suspense in its many forms have found their champions on the other side of the line, yours truly from time to time among them, and have been praised for accomplishments rather more substantial than that of keeping the reader on tenterhooks.

The most recent beneficiary of this process is Elmore Leonard, who until a couple of years ago was, although the author of more than a dozen novels, almost entirely unknown beyond the ranks of the most knowing and devoted readers of hard-boiled suspense fiction. As best I can discover, the tide began to turn for him in 1980 with the publication of City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, a brutally unsentimental story about life in Michigan’s version of the naked city; the novel received serious and favorable attention in quarters where Leonard’s work had gone previously unnoticed. The same was true, except even more so, for his two subsequent novels, Split Images and Cat Chaser; thanks to the reception they were given, he can decorate the dust jacket of his new novel with a string of quotes that would make any writer thank his lucky stars.

 

Leonard’s bandwagon had left the station by the time I heard its music, and I’ve had to do some running to catch up. But better late than never: Leonard is the real thing. He doesn’t write “literature,” and I’d be astonished if he claimed to; there’s nothing in his fiction to suggest that he packs even an ounce of pretentiousness. But like John D. MacDonald, whom he resembles but does not appear to imitate, he raises the hard-boiled suspense novel beyond the limits of genre and into social commentary; he paints an acute, funny and sometimes very bitter picture of a world that is all too real and recognizable, yet a world that rarely makes an appearance in the kind of fiction that is routinely given serious consideration.

It is a world in which people do business; they don’t often do it honestly, but in one form or another business is what they do. This is the great untouched subject in contemporary American fiction: the focus around which American life revolves, yet which American writers resolutely ignore. As a character in Stick puts it: “Anyway, what’s my goal, the American dream. What else? Put money in some gimmick everybody has to have, get rich and retire. No more worries, no more looking over your shoulder.” Making a buck: it’s a story rooted as deeply as any other in the American tradition, yet when it comes to telling it in fiction, only a handful of suspense writers and an occasional peddler of schlock are willing to take up the challenge.

The buck-making in Stick takes two forms: Chucky hustles drugs, Barry engages in “investing, trading or speculating.” The fellow who watches them both is named Ernest Stickley Jr., known to one and all as Stick: “He was forty-two years old, born in Norman, Oklahoma, but raised in Detroit where his dad had come to work at Ford Rouge. Stick looked like he was from another time: dustbowl farmer turned hobo. He was at a low point in his life.” He has just been released from prison in Michigan, where he served seven years for armed robbery. Now he is in South Florida:

“With the hot glare pressing on his glasses and his eyes closed tight he would try to look into the future to a place where a man forty-two, starting over, could find something interesting and make up for lost time. If he was going to work he’d have to stay in Florida and get back in construction. Not around Miami, though. Or Detroit. People up there with seniority were drawing unemployment. He didn’t look so far ahead that he pictured himself an old man on the street, he pictured himself now; but he couldn’t, no matter how hard he thought, see himself doing anything.”

What he ends up doing isn’t all that much: hiring himself on for a couple hundred dollars a week as chauffeur and gofer for Barry Stam, the precocious stock- market wheeler-dealer who buys and sells from the phones in his several automobiles and thus leads Stick, who admits that “I got a few things to learn,” to the conclusion that “making a phone call to your broker in the back seat of a Cadillac doing sixty miles an hour with the air conditioning on is an awful lot easier than going someplace with a gun, isn’t it?” Indeed it is, and it is a lesson that Stick learns with considerable alacrity, eventually to the point of figuring out how to do his own kind of business and how to make it pay.

But that’s only part of the story. As Stick goes through the process of getting back into the rhythm of life outside the penitentiary, Leonard sends him through an impressive (but in no way gratuitous) series of alarms and diversions: the tawdry underworld of the drug dealers, the tacky luxuries of the ostentatiously rich, the clash between Anglo and Latin cultures as it permeates life in South Florida. There’s a rather hilarious evening during which more sexual passion is thrust at Stick than even a “real man” can handle, and several sobering encounters with unsavory fellows whose assignment is to put Stick permanently out of commission.

But if thrills and amusements are Leonard’s principal stock in trade, it is also clear that Stick is a novel with more serious purposes. Stick, as he re-enters the world of ordinary life after seven years in the cramped, isolated world of prison, is a man trying to adjust; Leonard has Jack Henry Abbott firmly in mind as he depicts Stick’s attempts to relearn the rules of the world on the outside, rather than to impose the laws of “the hole” on society. And he obviously has Abbott’s literary and political accomplices in mind when he depicts Barry Stam, with his taste for assembling a retinue of the violent and notorious: “What the man likes is to rub against danger without getting any on him. Make him feel like the macho man. . . . See, he sits there at the club with his rich friends? Say, ‘Oh yeah, I go right in the cage with ‘em. They wouldn’t hurt me none. No, I know how to handle ‘em, how to treat ‘em.’ “

Elmore Leonard has no tolerance for sham or pretense, in the prose he writes or the people he depicts. He’s a funny writer—all the best suspense writers are—and an incisive, unsparing one. He does honest work, and reading it is a great pleasure.

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