I cannot claim as ambitious a summer reading agenda as Jim Groom, but somehow I have managed to finish an unprecedented two novels in the last 3 weeks.
Both were titles I picked up at one of the book sales from the Pine Arizona Library; first was David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green; I grabbed that only because of how much I enjoyed reading Cloud Atlas (oh wait, I have a report on that one when I read it in 2011). I could not put it down, but that’s another post. I did jump a connection in talking about why zombies bore me.
I had never read Elmore Leonard before, and likely picked it up out of curiosity/respect when he passed away last summer. And this is by no means a literary review or plot summary… but here goes. The story takes place in new Orleans and has a central ex-con, Jack Delaney as primary character. At first he was just a bit too perfect, former jewel thief, could have been model, a bit wry, obviously a ladies man, and he ends up getting involve with a beautiful ex-nun and a plot to steal money from some bad people.
But what I found in reading this book is how Leonard really does not stick to the expected plot lines, there are twists turns, the obvious romance never happens, and it is more dialogue then action. And as described in a New York Times review, it really is more about the characters than the action:
But it will do. Mr. Leonard has got his usual diverting cast of grifters and creeps up his sleeve and action as Byzantine as ever Chandler himself thought up. In fact, reading it, I felt like William Faulkner when he was writing the screenplay for the film version of Chandler’s novel “The Big Sleep.” The story is that he had to call up Chandler to find out what was going on. Chandler wasn’t sure.
Yes, it will do.
Letting the Characters Do It
“Most thrillers,” says Elmore Leonard, “are based on a situation, or on a plot, which is the most important element in the book. I don’t see it that way. I see my characters as being most important, how they bounce off one another, how they talk to each other, and the plot just sort of comes along.” In fact, Mr. Leonard is so comfortable allowing his characters to control the pace and action of his stories that he didn’t know how “Bandits” would end until three days before he finished it last April.
And without giving anything away, the story could have ended in at least 4 or 5 different ways and still be satisfying. And you find out that the key character on which it all turns is not the one you have been following for most of the book.
What I found enjoyable is how deep and genuine (as far as I can tell) Leonard gets to the setting of New Orleans outside of the stereotypes. He paints that tension of locals versus tourists:
Out on Bourbon Street bumping into each other, the whole bunch of them aimless, probably thinking, this is it, huh? The street a midway of skin shows and tacky novelty shops. The poor guys at Preservation Hall and other joints playing that canned Dixieland, doing “When the Saints” over and over for the tourists in the doorways. There was some good music around, if Al Hirt was in town or you found a group with Bill Huntington playing his standup bass or Ellis Marsalis somewhere. His boy Wynton had left town with his horn to play for the world.
That reference jumped me back to a trip in 2008 for a conference at Tulane, and my local colleague/friend Marie took me to a place called Snug Harbor, and saw not only Ellis Marsalis, but the youngest son, Jason, too.
Well written setting and a swirl of characters, none too sure who is quite the good guys… all for a good read.
I wonder what is next?