Wednesday, May 12, 2010
As my homies Ange Mlinko & Pattie McCarthy can both attest, there is not much more to the Paoli Library than a large room at the back of an ill-designed (but with an “historic” façade) bank. In the 15 years I’ve lived here, the bank name has gone from Core States to Meridian to First Union to Wachovia to Wells Fargo – I may even have forgotten one or two – as one institution has swallowed another in the ongoing quest to become Too Big to Fail. The library has continued on as though nothing has happened. The stand-alone PCs that crowded the center of the room when I first moved here in 1995 have web access now, but that literally is about it.
In the sallyport off the parking lot, which enables the library to be open on Sundays when the bank is not, the Friends of the Library have stocked a couple of small bookcases with either books withdrawn from the collection or donated paperbacks. Seeing among the latter an Elmore Leonard novel available for the grand sum of 25¢, I picked up Mr. Paradise & brought it home. It then sat on my fiction/memoir-to-be-read bookcase for a year or three before I picked it up in the wake of reading Herta Müller.
“What is that?” Colin asked when he saw me reading. “That doesn’t look like the sort of thing you’d usually read.” This, I replied, is an amuse-bouche, tho what I really meant was a palette cleanser, which is how I described it when Colin followed my response to his first question with another What’s that?
Elmore Leonard, I explained, used to write great crime novels about Detroit, notable for his unmatched ear for dialog. Then he got famous, got rich, got to Florida, had movies with the likes of John Travolta, George Clooney & Jennifer Lopez in them, got sober (good for him), and I’d long ago concluded that the hard edges had all been rubbed smooth & soft by the ravages of time. Now – now being a relative term since Mr. Paradise first came out in 2002, the same year that Frank Sherlock & CAConrad penned The City Real & Imagined, also the year I began this blog – he has returned in his fiction, this book at least, back to Detroit. I wanted something to serve as a break between Müller & whatever comes next, and Mr. Paradise looks like it would be just the trick. [You can read the first chapter here and samples of other sections at Google Books.]
Which it is, sorta. There’s no question about the hard edges having gone soft & squishy, but Leonard still has an ear – something, say, that Robert B. Parker never had, and likewise what separates someone on the order of Stephen King from hacks like John Grisham, Dan Brown or Michael Crichton. Reading Mr. Paradise is more like eating a rich dessert than an amuse-bouche, but functionally it let me get all the echoes of Müller’s prose (as translated by Michael Hoffman) out of my system, leaving no residue of its own.
Leonard adheres to the rules of the genre, but with his own special sauce, which is that everybody in the book tends to be a loser. Imagine, to use Parker’s Spenser for Hire series as a point of contrast, the affable but earnest bungler Spenser without the inscrutably lethal sidekick of Hawk & the presence of his lady friend the shrink. Delsa, the homicide cop at the heart of Mr. Paradise is not so different from Spenser, a little less of a wise-ass perhaps. But around him a dozen or so important characters waltz through Leonard’s motions, not one of whom is better than they ought to be, so to speak.
The plot, roughly, is this. The title character, who is dead pretty quick here, is an old criminal defense lawyer now in his dotage, waited on by a couple of former clients & whose one pleasure in life would appear to be a $950-an-hour call girl who has taken him on as her exclusive client for $5K a week. When Mr. P gets popped, and his lady friend Chloe along with him, wearing naught but her University of Michigan cheerleader’s skirt, Delsa steps in to solve the crime, and in the process finds himself becoming personally involved with Chloe’s roommate, a model by the name of Kelly whom one of Mr. P’s staffers tries to rope into a scheme of claiming Chloe’s “inheritance.” There are a pair of middle-aged hit men, some young gang bangers involved in a drug hit (one victim was cut up post-mortem with a chain saw & the book has a running gag – both senses of that word – about the number of parts involved), and both of Mr. P’s staffers have their roles to play, plus some additional cops & robbers, plus Mr. P’s daughter who ought to wear the sign “Plot Device” around her neck. In the end, the supposed bad guys are all caught, the supposed good ones safe & sound, somebody makes out very well on an inheritance, tho not whom you might expect nor what you might imagine, & Delsa can shower with Kelly to his heart’s content.
The problem of loserhood is a critical one for Leonard, because it’s what differentiates the periods of his work. In the early Detroit novels – I’ve never read the cowboy novels that began his career – there is a grittiness to it that comes across as very believable. In the Hollywood & Florida-based works, someone is often not a loser, and these works come across much as treatments for possible screen plays (which more than a few ended up as). Returning to Detroit seems at least like an attempt on Leonard’s part to get back in touch with that original grit that made his writing so different from others in his genre. But now, however, everyone – everyone – is a lovable loser, even the lethal bad guys. The hit men don’t like killing people – they’re not sociopaths – but it’s a good living. The guy who is orchestrating everything, the ultimate baddie, is almost as conflicted as the “innocent” model trapped in the middle of the plot. She spends less time lusting after her savior the cop than she does trying to decide whether or not to steal the inheritance all for herself. Nor is Delsa, with his serious boundary issues, sleeping with a suspect, any less compromised. The only character in the book who is presented entirely in negative terms is the wife of one of the hit men. But otherwise, this is a book written entirely in shades of grey.
Leonard was himself 78 when Mr. Paradise came out, pretty much the same age bracket as the dear departed title character, and the softer tone of his more recent work is not unlike, say, the more casual lyricism Robert Creeley took on in his 70s. The two writers make for some interesting comparisons – both were born in the mid-1920s and did their best work around the age of 50 – Creeley’s Pieces, Leonard’s Unknown Man No. 89 & maybe 52 Pickup – and one might argue that both found writing to be a most comfortable habit toward the end, pushing no envelopes whatsoever. I’ve always felt that Creeley was in no way obligated to keep pushing (and that Mabel & Presences suggested the limits of that approach in any event) – that Creeley had worked for decades to clear the ground for the writing he needed & wanted to do, and having found such ground had less need to head off once again into the wilderness. With Leonard, I find myself far less forgiving, and I wonder why. Is it that for him that ground wasn’t in his best work per se, but in the work that reaped the greatest rewards? That sort of just goes with the territory for genre fictioneers, no? Why hold Leonard to a different standard? Plus, one of his most successful works – twice made into a motion picture, once with Glenn Ford & Van Heflin, once with Russell Crowe & Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma was one of his earliest short stories.
I think it may be that I once had some sense, possibly foolish, that Leonard was shooting for the most honest of crime fiction and that led to dispassionately examining the character’s lives & their flaws & their language. Now I see a novelist who knows how to hit all the requisite spots in the form, but seems to have lost interest in the world it invokes.