Going Dutch

Fifty-Two Pickup, Swag from Four Novels of the 1970’s by Elmore Leonard.  Library of America.  808 pp.  $37.50

Elmore Leonard wrote great—I would almost say groundbreaking—dialogue, but the rest of his writing was ordinary, even pedestrian.  Let’s the opening of Fifty-Two Pickup.

“He could not get used to going to the girl’s apartment.  He would be tense, driving past the gate and following the road that wound through the complex of townhouse condominiums.  Even when it was dark he was a little tense.  But once he reached the garage and pressed the remote control switch and the double door opened he was there and it was done.”

This is Library of America material?  “Call me Ishmael,” it’s not.

So what is it about Elmore Leonard that made him the envy of many of his contemporaries?[1]  What we sometimes forget is that the art of fiction is first and foremost about telling a story, and Leonard had an absolute genius for that.  Fifty-Two Pickup, peopled by the most ordinary characters imaginable, is absolutely terrifying, and moves like an express train, thundering through a story that other writers would have taken fifty more pages to tell.  Scene after scene is so brilliantly put together, starting and stopping on a dime, that we never have a chance to catch our breath, and the ending is so abrupt that you finish the book and think, wait a minute.  Did I just read that?  So you read it again.

Then, if you’re reading a Library of America volume, you start another novel.

Years ago, when I kept up with the Washington Post Book World, Bruce Cook wrote an article called “Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Sound.”  I was so taken with it that I began to read Leonard, and to follow his career.  I liked the gritty urban Detroit characters, and the city streets he described, became a little less interested when he moved on to glitzy places like Miami and L.A.   I wondered if success was taking him away from his roots.  (Actually, as this book’s Chronology makes clear, Leonard was always commercially successful and dealt with Hollywood right from the start.  He wrote Westerns before he wrote crime novels, and wrote the original stories for both Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma.)  So when my son moved to Detroit, and the Library of America brought out a volume of the early novels, I was all over it.  The novels were every bit as good as I remembered.  And the Chronology gave me a whole new understanding of his career.

Leonard wrote crime but not detective novels, a distinction I didn’t understand when I began reading him.  He often wrote from the viewpoint of the criminal, or the victim.  His books aren’t about some crime that has happened, and unraveling the mystery of who did it.  We’re right in on the crime, and often see what happened, and how it went.  And we have no idea what might happen.  The good guys don’t necessarily win, or stay alive.  There aren’t really any good guys.  It’s just us folks.  But some of us are committing crimes.

Fifty-Two Pickup is a case in point.  Harry Mitchell is a Detroit businessman who’s been having an affair.  He’s in his early forties and it’s the first time he’s ever done that; he needed a little excitement in his life, met a young woman in what’s now known as a Gentleman’s Club and started to see her.  While another writer might have treated us to the pleasures of the flesh (Updike would have gone on for pages), Leonard opens with his character being blackmailed; the person waiting for him in the apartment is not his girlfriend but a black man with a stocking over his face.  The man has movies of Mitchell meeting his girlfriend.  He wants money—and claims to know how much Mitchell can afford—or he’s going to expose everything.

Another person—me, for instance—might have gone to the police right away.  But Mitchell started off as a blue collar guy and has risen to the top of the business world on his own.  When workers threaten a slowdown in his plant he confronts them directly, and takes on the guy from the union physically, even though the man is bigger.  He also actually loves his wife, and she’s a strong person in her own way; she’s pissed when he tells her the story but is ready to fight back.  It’s the two of them against three petty criminals who have thought up the blackmail scheme, each one sleazier than the last.  Things happen that are hard to stomach.  People die.  But the book is riveting all the way through, and ends as abruptly as it began.  No Charles Dickens stuff here.

I was a little startled, after the real terror of Fifty-Two Pickup, to discover that Swag is, among other things, a comedy.  It’s about two guys who take up a life of crime almost as if they’re entrepreneurs.  Stick has an absolute genius for stealing cars, was actually stealing one out of a used car lot when his partner discovered him.  Frank—the partner in question—was selling the cars at the time, though he just worked for the place, didn’t care if the car was recovered or not.  He likes his job okay, but thinks there might be easier ways to make a living.  The two of them go into it like two guys doing a science experiment, first stealing some guns, then knocking over a liquor store, then going on from there.

They have a set of rules for how they’re going to run their business (much like Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing).  Frank had actually created the rules before he began his life of crime, but the two men go over them all the time.  They move into a nice apartment complex with a swimming pool and a number of unattached women.  They set up a bar in their house and learn how to make specialty drinks.  They’re low class guys living the high life.  And then, predictably, they reach for too much.

This is one of those crime stories where you can’t help rooting for the criminal.  I continued to feel that way even after Stick had shot a couple of guys (but they had tried to rob him after he’d robbed somebody else).  This is a novel about guys who like to lie around—or as they would say, lay around—a swimming pool, have a few too many drinks, get to know some friendly young women (paying one now and then) and work as little as possible, maybe a couple stick-ups a week, just to keep the booze flowing.  It’s when they try to make the big score—and also when they cross Detroit’s racial divide (there’s a lot of very funny stuff about race in this book, very politically incorrect, very Detroit)—that they get in trouble.  And that’s when the book gets as suspenseful as Fifty-Two Pickup.

[1] The list of writers who corresponded with Leonard is rather impressive.  Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block, Evan Hunter, Tony Hillerman, Pete Hamill, Russell Banks, Ross Thomas, Jim Harrison, James W. Hall, Andre Dubus, Dean Koontz, Walker Percy.