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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Elmore Leonard

This past Wednesday evening my son and I went to see Elmore Leonard, who was speaking at the New Canaan library.

He was introduced by columnist Mike Lupica as "our greatest living writer." I might give that nod to Tom Wolfe, but there's no doubting Leonard's greatness. He is unquestionably our foremost crime novelist. I have an entire bookcase shelf -- you might call it a shrine -- devoted to his novels.

What Leonard has in common with Wolfe is his skill in creating dramatic, climactic showdowns between macho characters. They both understand courage and cowardice, intimidation and retreat. What Leonard has over Wolfe is that he has a great feel for how sociopaths think and act, and knows how they differ from the rest of us. Wolfe has a tendency to make all of his characters equally venal and self-serving. (What Wolfe has over Leonard is that he ranges over a wider variety of social milieus, and perhaps has a keener eye for status considerations.) Both men have great, sly senses of humor.

Leonard's characters tend to hang out in places like The Glades Correctional Facility in Florida, or the Kronk Gymnasium in Detroit. They are mostly low-lives: fortune tellers, loan sharks, small time gangsters, and the like. For those of us who have led relatively sheltered lives, they illuminate that world in a way that makes it come alive and seem very real.

When you go see someone like Leonard, you don't really expect to learn anything about him, or from him. You do that from reading his books, and reading about him. It's more to just see the great man, soak up his aura, sort of sniff him. There's a certain quiet thrill in seeing the actual human being behind all those enjoyable adventures you've read. And maybe you can give yourself a conversation- (or blog-) piece later on.

Leonard read a bit from his latest book, "Road Dogs." He also answered a few questions, including this one from a young-ish man: "Do you write to escape, or to find yourself?" (I guess no matter how rich or successful you get, you're never entirely insulated from stupidity. Leonard's answer was, "I write for the money, and I also enjoy it.")

Leonard let on that most of the movies which had been made from his books were lousy, though he liked "Hombre" and "Get Shorty." This was no surprise; I've seen many of those movies.

It was obvious that even at 83 he's still quite sharp, which is encouraging for all of us who are younger. He's not a particularly distinctive-looking fellow. I've seen his picture in the back of most of his books, and as always when I read a book, have found myself turning to look at his picture fairly frequently. Yet if I saw him on the street, I doubt that I'd recognize him.

He reiterated a few of his rules of writing, including this fairly famous one: "If it sounds like writing, re-write it."

He also said that he tries not to get in the way of his characters. This is a quest in which he succeeds admirably. When you read him, you really feel you're in a shack on the fringes of the Everglades listening to some drug dealers, or in a Michigan prison yard listening to real inmates.

My son and I sat in the back of the audience so that we could leave early without causing a scene. As a result, even though I raised my hand several times during the Q and A session afterward, I was never called on. What I had intended to say was this: "I just wanted to pass along an observation my seventeen year old son, who's a big fan of yours, made a few minutes ago. He said, 'Here we are in the New Canaan Public Library surrounded by a group of well-behaved, respectful, bookish people. I can't imagine a more un-Elmore Leonard-like setting'."

Had that gotten a good response, I would have added, "Please promise me one thing, that you'll use this setting in at least one of your books in the future."

It would have been a vain request, but it might have given the great man a small chuckle.

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