Monthly Archives: August 2013

On the Death of Elmore Leonard

28 August 2013

Unlike most of his characters, may Elmore Leonard RIP

RIP Elmore Leonard

“The sky is cryin’ . . .”

—Elmore James

Like his blues-howling namesake, Elmore Leonard could conjure dark doings, and stretch your heart with worry about the survival of some lost soul on the underside. He was also one of my favorite all-time writers, but if you’re after a grand summation of his life and work, you’d better look elsewhere.  (” . . . one of America’s greatest crime novelists and one of Hollywood’s favorite storytellers” . . . “a seemingly inexhaustible cast of sleaze-balls, scam artists and out-and-out psychopaths.”)

I first encountered his work at a friend’s garage sale in the mid-80s. There was nothing of interest on offer, so just to be polite I grabbed a foxed paperback of Glitz. Little did I know the seedy, convoluted worlds of intrigue into which I was about to tumble. Forty books later (I think I’ve read everything Leonard published except for Escape From Five Shadows), the man was still turning over rocks to see what might crawl out.

Leonard always kept it short, sweet and to the point. As he famously said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” He moved scene to scene, inventing as he went, so that his books never had the feel of being “plotted.” His ability to characterize meant that in a single page he’d have you feeling you knew deep motivations and festering hurts and couldn’t wait to see what some clown would do when pushed to the edge—particularly when pushed to the edge by competing factions all chasing the same McGuffin.

It never took long to tumble into the story either. Dig the opening sentence of another 80s novel, Bandits: “Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.” How can you not keep reading?

An ex-nun, an ex-con, and an ex-cop stumble on a cache of money on its way to the Nicaraguan Contras. They're going to make out like bandits.

In New Orleans, an ex-nun, an ex-con, and an ex-cop stumble on a cache of money on its way to the Nicaraguan Contras. They’re going to make out like bandits.

And the dialogue! So crisp, so real. Look how much we learn about these two guys’ attitudes in this uninterrupted slice of repartee (also from Bandits):

“. . . the guy has the desk lamp on and he’s taking stuff out of the lady’s briefcase and putting it in this flight bag he has with him. So, I started to sneak up behind him.”
“No shit.”
“He was about your size. What’re you, five six?”
“Five seven and a quarter.”
“He wasn’t too big. Maybe a hundred and thirty pounds.”
“I go one sixty-two,” Mario said.
“So I don’t see a problem unless he’s got a gun.”
“Yeah, did he?”
“Just then he turns around and we’re looking right at each other. The guy says, very calmly, ‘I bet I have the wrong room. This isn’t 1515, is it?’ I said, ‘You aren’t even close.’ . . .”

And one more time. With Leonard, you share a random ride with an ex-nun, and before long you’re embroiled in Sandinista blood vendettas. They’re not long in the car together, still killing time, but getting intrigued (again from Bandits):

     “You’re a nurse?”

“Not exactly. What I did was practice medicine without a license. Toward the end we didn’t have a staff physician. Our two Nicaraguan doctors were disappeared, one right after the other. It was only a matter of time. We weren’t for either side, but we knew who we were against.”
     Were disappeared.
He’d save that one for later. “And now you’re back home for a while?”
She took several moments to say, “I’m not sure.” Then glanced at him. “How about you, Jack, are you still a jewel thief?”
He liked the easy way she said his name. “No, I gave it up for another line of work. I got into agriculture.”
“Really? You were a farmer?”
“More of a field hand. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Angola.”

Man, that’s good. I got to keep trying . . .

RIP Elmore Leonard.


Montevideo Moods

21 August 2013

To get to Montevideo I take the bus from the former Portuguese smuggling port of Colonia del Sacramento on Uruguay’s southwestern coast, on through cattle country and tidy villages with Alpine names. After leaving my bag at Tres Cruces Terminal—an airy, clean shopping area as well as bus terminal; Greyhound could learn a lot here—I wander the embassy district and the huge Parque Batlle. Everywhere is green. Horses nibble at the long grass. In the distance a pair of lovers huddles on a stone bench, sharing each other’s warmth. The park has an under-wraps fun fair, impressive sculptures, a velodrome, and the Estadio Centenario, the site of the first World Cup in 1930. That Cup was won by Uruguay and there are still bronze plaques honoring the team, as well as foreign stars from the event. Outside the stadium, a local team is running drills on a practice pitch and two workmen in coveralls hose down the cement arrival area.

Uruguay not only hosted the very first World Cup, they won it. Thanks for Forlan and Suarez, they nearly one the last one too . . .

Uruguay not only hosted the very first World Cup, they won it. Thanks to Forlan and Suarez, they nearly won the last one too . . .

I spend my time in Montevideo walking, walking, walking. I eat in little workingman cafes; have breakfasts at Oro del Rhein, a 75 year-old classic German bakery/cafe, and watch the clusters of mate drinkers form and dissolve. I walk cobbled streets past flower vendors, and dip in for cappuccino whenever my energy flags. There are remnants of 19th century French and Spanish colonial architecture everywhere, especially above the ground floor. Long-haired artisans display their creations on streetside blankets. Vendors of herbs and oddments set up little tables and bargain with the passersby. The clopping of horses’ hooves from the garbage carts is constant throughout the day, and adds to the air of shabby gentility that seems to hang over the city. 

I dawdle in the plazas, which feel like the city’s barrio heartbeats: Plaza del Entrevero the flower-strewn link to the city center; Plaza Independencia the nation’s pride, with the neo-classical Teatro Solis, the overwhelming bulk of Palacio Silva (once the tallest building in South America), and the last remaining remnant of the old Spanish city gates; Plaza Zabala a spot to doze in the sun and dream of colonial days. My favorite is Plaza de la Constitucion, which is encircled by Iglesia Matriz, the oldest church in the country (1799) and the Cabildo, or old colonial town hall, which holds a museum of local artifacts.

Just off Plaza de la Constitucion, students let loose.

Just off Plaza de la Constitucion, students let loose.

All along Montevideo’s peninsula setting are Las Ramblas, recalling for me the famous Ramblas in Barcelona. But where in Catalonia these walking streets bisect the center of the old city, here they ring it, working around the edges like a fishing net scooping up the crumbling art nouveau buildings from the grey rush of the river estuary. Further east, Montevideo sports a string of fine beaches, exceptional in such urban surroundings, and the Ramblas form a handsome esplanade with palm trees and apartment blocks, but here, embracing the Ciudad Vieja (the Old City) the meandering stone walkways are windswept and tatty. Lone fishermen work the undersides of jetties; in the lee of statues are remnants of last night’s furtive parties, and cats glide in silence from outcropping to outcropping. The wind is loud in my ears.

After several overcast days, the sun peeks through and the city is suddenly filled with street life. Flower vendors blossom on every corner. The shoeshine men step sprightly and snap their cloths with a crisper touch. Schoolkids in uniform shriek past and make for the nearest park.

Now the plazas are filled with old men arguing the results of the upcoming elections and mate drinkers sitting placidly as fountains play behind them. I can’t recall seeing a single rich person, nor anyone exceptionally poor. Birds flutter and chirp in the trees. Two little girls in red walk past, giggling as their ice cream dribbles onto their shirts.

As dusk tinges the streets around Plaza del Entrevero to deeper grey I stroll out of the park and past a shy pre-school girl sharing a hug with a crouching, gap-toothed old man on the pavement. I drop down quickly to their level, hoping to catch a telephoto shot of the moment, but the old man sees me, encourages the shot, and then asks if I can send him a copy of the photo. “Sure,” I say. “Write down your address.” Surprisingly, he has no address, only a name: Andres. But at the corner kiosk he gets the magazine vendor to list his shop’s address, where Andres can pick up the photo when I send it. We part with big smiles and a firm handshake.

Andres and his new young friend.

Andres and his new young friend.

On my last day in town I catch a creaking bus down the length of the old city cobbles, disembarking on one of the slowly crumbling side streets, where the working class clings to the traditional ways, knowing that while gentrification might mean fresh tourist pesos, it would inevitably end their pattern of life. The stevedore jobs are gone. The life of the port seems to retreat like the tide, further and further away from their doorsteps. But there’s no sense of surrender. Not yet.

Ahead of me the massive customs office—an exemplar of socialist realist architecture—leads through to a stretch of road and the gleaming hydrofoil to Buenos Aires. It’s like riding a spacious aircraft, but with extra decks and a working cafeteria. I settle in alongside a window, watching Montevideo’s first raison d’etre—the hill of El Cerro; still with a lighthouse flashing from its peak—and then we rumble out of the bay and slide westwards towards the all-consuming hub of Argentina.