Sunday, May 29, 2005

Unknown Man #89 by Elmore Leonard

I was delighted to read that Will Saffire addresses Leonard in his NYT column, On Language, which I read religiously. Saffire gives an entire section to the so called “Hot Kid” of American fiction. While the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if ole Billy Saffire wasn’t contractually obligated by E.L’s PR agent to give his new book & movie a mention, the reader in me is pleased to see Leonard get some attention from the popular linguist corps.

Based on King’s advice in On Writing, I read two of Leonard’s books back in the winter in order to listen to his use of dialog. Many writers, Gibson for one, have credited Leonard with having the best dialog currently in use, and I was curious to see what all the talk was about.

Unknown Man #89 was written almost twenty years ago now, and while the content feels dated, the style does not. The novel concerns itself with the double crosses and murderous activities of a bunch of Detroit low-lifes. It’s the type of book that gave root to a hundred seventies era crime shows. It’s portrayal of down and out dope pushers, junkies, drunks, cops, and other small time grifters feels authentic and dirty.

The premise is pure Chandler: A man-hunter is paid to find a guy. Murders ensue. The style is economic, the dialog sizzles, the characters are caricatures. The plot is complex, and already I’ve forgotten most of it. But it doesn’t matter. The dialog is the point here, and Leonard delivers exactly what was promised: street lingo that rings true, and characters who come off sounding legit when they mouth it.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty, which I’m told was made into a film starring Danny Devito, was not nearly as interesting to me as was UM#89. First, it deals with Hollywood, and Hollywood’s obsession with itself has never been very interesting to me. Second, the complex double dealing and backstabbing present here read a bit more like an attempt at postmodern something or other, what with all the folks trying to turn this story of their lives into a movie about their stories. Chili Palmer, loan shark enforcer and general cool guy goes to Hollywood, beds an aging actress, pushes a movie script, gets involved with coke dealers, and chases down a guy who conned some money out of an airline.

Again, cool dialog, complicated plot, cardboard characters.

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