Tishomingo Blues from Four Later Novels by Elmore Leonard. Library of America. 961 pp. $40.00.
No sooner do I complain about a problem in Elmore Leonard’s work—the fact that every novel seemed to feature a monstrous guy who killed people casually and unnecessarily, as if such people don’t need explaining—than it disappeared. Tishomingo Blues includes plenty of killing, especially at the end, but just about everybody who dies is a total sleazeball, and I was glad to see them go. That isn’t necessarily a feature of Leonard’s work; the good guys don’t always win. But Tishomingo Blues hardly belongs in the Leonard universe; it is set in Mississippi (though some major characters are down there from Detroit); it centers on high divers and Civil war reenactors (?); it is character-centered to an extent that seems unusual even in the later Leonard, and it is once again (this has been happening more and more) ultimately a love story. In some ways it’s the most interesting of his novels. It’s a good way to end the Library of America volumes.
Dennis Lenahan, the novel’s protagonist, is an itinerant high diver, a dying breed (pardon the expression) if it ever actually existed. For a while he dived from the cliffs of Acapulco, but for some time—he’s nearing 40—he has been traveling with his equipment, including a tank that holds nine feet of water and extension ladders that go up to eighty feet. He finds somebody—in this case a hotel manager, near some casinos—who will hire him as a sideshow, sets up and puts on daily shows. He dives from various platforms on his ladder, but always, by the end, dives from eighty feet. When he tells people what the sensation is like, he throws a fifty cent piece to the ground and says that’s the way the tank looks when you’re eighty feel up. At times he admits it’s more the size of a teacup. In any case, it’s a feat that’s almost unimaginable. As soon as he saw somebody do it, he wanted to try, and he’s made a living at it most of his life. He’s a person that lives on the edge, day after day, like many of the criminals in the Leonard universe. That’s what he has in common with them.
Not far into the book, Dennis meets another man who lives on the edge, an African American named Robert Taylor, but for a long time we have no idea what the man does. He’s one of the people who’s down from Detroit—eventually there will be a group of them—and he’s fascinated by Dennis and the nerve he displays, the sheer skill; otherwise it’s not at all apparent what he’s doing in Mississippi or why he keeps talking to Dennis. His primary skill—and it turns out to be considerable—seems to be a way of talking that keeps people on edge, or a little off balance, keeps them engaged while not giving anything away. He comes from a violent world, we eventually discover, and may be adept at physical violence, but he seems to have learned to live by his wits. When—toward the end of the novel—another guy is all set to blow him away with a shotgun, he starts talking. He keeps talking. Conversation is his primary weapon.
Dennis when he meets Robert has just seen something unnerving. From his perch on the 80 foot platform, he has seen a couple of guys take away the workman who helped him rig up the ladder and apparently murder him (the one casual killing in the book, I admit. But it’s more or less done off stage, and it’s eighty feet down; we barely see it). The guy was a grifter who was recently out of prison, walked around with a pint of Maker’s Mark in his back pocket, but he apparently set up the ladders well. Dennis was a witness to the crime and the two men who committed it know that; they were ready to take him out on the spot, but another guy shows up and makes them leave. Eventually they let Dennis know he’s living on borrowed time. If he says a word to the authorities they’re taking him out.
I have to say that, as a person with a serious fear of heights, whose greatest diving feet was a cannonball from the one meter board, I find the idea of high divers fascinating. A whole host of people agree; many locals attend Dennis’ daily shows, including a number of women who want to know him. He’s not a macho person; he actually likes and is interested in women, especially the youngish women who are divorced with a couple of kids and are looking for a man who might stick around. His slightly plumpish landlady takes a shine to him, as does a local woman newscaster, also the wife of one of the sleazeballs. Dennis is interested right back, and seldom spends a night alone. Eventually he falls in love.
I’m less interested in Civil War reenactment; I don’t understand the fascination that many people seem to have for this activity, or why Elmore Leonard was so interested in it, to the point that he knew multifarious details of various battles that took place in that part of Mississippi. An elaborate battle reenactment is at the heart of this story, with a few people playing with real bullets, because they’re involved in drug deals and various other nefarious activities. We’re aware for much of the novel that such a showdown is coming, right in the midst of all the make-believe carnage. When it does, though, it plays out in a totally unexpected and almost comic way. It involved killing, but I have to admit I enjoyed the scene. It was not what I expected.
There is another scene at the end—the aforementioned one where a guy is holding a shotgun on Robert Taylor—where a man who has never even fired a pistol figures out how one works and shoots a guy across the room, killing him with one bullet. I’m not sure I quite believe that, though by that time we’re pretty safely in the land of make-believe, where guns are going off all the time and you never know what the hell’s going to happen. I by that time was more interested in the love story, and in the characters of Robert and Dennis, who have an odd friendship and a strange fascination with each other. They think for a while of pairing up, but decide eventually to stay in their own domains. They’re two of Leonard’s least predictable and most subtle characters, and for me they make the novel one of his best. He published it at age 77, still going strong.
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