Thursday, January 24, 2013
Janet Maslin Review of Tishomingo Blues
The New York Times
Leaving Out the Parts Readers Skip
BYLINE: By JANET MASLIN
Elmore Leonard’s latest book features a cool operator with a laid-back style, a wry, sneaky observer of human nature. He enjoys inhabiting the world of crime. He’s a smoothly calculating guy who plays all the angles. And if he takes his time getting what he wants, the important thing is that he knows how to get it.
That describes a character named Robert Taylor, the principal conniver in “Tishomingo Blues.” But of course we’re talking about the author, too. Mr. Leonard, sharp as ever, has concocted another deft, funny book about dueling miscreants, and this time he has staged the duel in costume-party style. There are ways to explain where this fits into the wide panorama of his earlier work, and why this book is a particular success. But Mr. Leonard has stated, in a list of suggestions to other writers, that it’s smart to leave out the parts that readers skip.
So back to the party: it’s a large-scale re-enactment of a Civil War battle, staged in the Mississippi Delta region of the title. And it features at least one dealer in mobile homes—including one called the Vicksburg that “has like slave quarters in back, where you keep your lawn mower”—dressing up as a Confederate general. This may be a good time to point out that Robert Taylor, who has his own agenda and is well aware of the Vicksburg, is black.
As if playing some kind of fill-in-the-blanks party game, Mr. Leonard has also built this story around a professional diver named Dennis Lenahan. No small part of the fun arises from wondering just what diving will have to do with the Civil War. But the great, solid thing about Mr. Leonard’s books is the certainty that it will fit, sooner or later, whenever he feels like putting the pieces together. And until that happens, he’s got a fine Southern comedy of manners on his hands.
The newly casino-filled town of Tunica, Miss., is clearly a happening place. It figures not only in “Tishomingo Blues,” but in John Grisham’s imminent new novel, too. This time Tunica is where Dennis is hired to perform 80-foot dives as a hotel’s tourist attraction. And Robert looks out his hotel room window and notices two things about Dennis. First, he has obviously got guts. And second, he happened to be up on his ladder when a gangland-type hit took place underneath. So Robert introduces himself with trademark Leonard sang-froid, saying, “It’s a pleasure meeting you, a man with no small amount of cool, do what you do.”
Robert knows a lot about the Civil War, having stolen the complete set of Ken Burns’s documentary videos from Blockbuster. And as he tells Dennis, “History can work for you, you know how to use it.” He demonstrates this by presenting the mobile home mogul Walter Kirkbride with a photograph of a lynching. The dead man, Robert says, was his great-grandfather. And it was Walter’s great-grandfather who killed him; this story has the desired intimidating effect. (It works just as well when Robert tries the same story on someone else.) And when Robert points out a likeness of the Ku Klux Klan’s founder in Kirkbride’s office, the mogul stammers: “It wasn’t as racially oriented as it is now. Oh my, no.”
Robert has a great talent for manipulating fall guys, and “Tishomingo Blues” sends many his way. The story soon fills up with hapless, penny-ante members of the Dixie Mafia. And a different kind of gangster arrives from Detroit, but he, too, is easily tricked. He doesn’t know, for instance, that Robert is sleeping with his wife. Meanwhile Dennis watches the plot thicken and remains fascinated yet mystified when it comes to Robert’s game plan. “Trying to figure out what I’m up to, huh?” Robert asks.
“It isn’t any of my business.”
“But you dying to know.”
So is the reader. But what’s best about this book is a setting and situation so well drawn that they almost upstage the mystery, especially after the battlefield action begins. There is the woman who pretends to be cooking while throwing defrosted Stouffer’s dinners into a pot. There is the baseball bore who even manages to work the game’s pioneer Abner Doubleday into his war story. There is the guy who wants to dress up as General Grant even though General Grant wasn’t at the battle in question. And there is considerable grumbling.
“I don’t sleep outside,” the baseball bore declares. “I don’t eat sowbelly either. I asked Vernice how in the hell you make hardtack. She said buy some rolls and let ‘em sit out on the counter a few days.”
Needless to say, there are also a few more loaded weapons than expected.
But beneath all the surface action there are also many signs of a deeper personal undertaking. The book is filled with love of the blues, with many references to the legendary singer Robert Johnson and the crossroads where he supposedly sold his soul to the Devil. The Detroit blues sound is also invoked, and Mr. Leonard has some terse, fond words for that city, his hometown.
The women in this book are especially substantial, to the point where they are as tough and interesting as the men. For instance, the disaffected wife who met her husband when he was in prison: “This was not the girl used to write sweet letters to him in the joint. They changed on you, all of ‘em. Set ‘em up with a nice house and a car and turned into alligators.”
And there is the reason Robert likes the film “All That Jazz,” which might be the credo of any Leonard hero: “The man living every minute of his life till the way he’s living kills him. Beautiful.”