Elmore Leonard, “Get Shorty” (1990) – I remember seeing ads for the movie adaptation of this as a child! “This is what a certain kind of grown up is like,” I thought, looking at the posters with John Travolta and company in their matching black clothes, sunglasses, and cool expressions. “This is what I have to look forward to,” I thought with a certain ambivalence. I have not seen the movie.
They say Elmore Leonard is a master of tight plot. Split the difference- there is a pretty neat pinballing character to the action in the two books of his I’ve read so far, as the action sets various colorful shady characters in motion, colliding them against each other and a variety of plot elements. To me, a lot of Elmore’s strength (again, in two novels, this one and “Maximum Bob,” out of his massive oeuvre) is in the moments where his characters breathe, chat, establish themselves. I think he’s a better master of scene-setting and characterization than of plot. In fact, I think sometimes his passion for the one detracts some from the other. The plots may be tight, but the pacing generally strikes me as somewhat “off.”
Anyway! Chili Palmer is a loan shark out of Miami. He goes to Las Vegas and then LA to chase down a debt. It’s a funny kind of debt, because the guy who accrued it faked his death, with the help of the crash of an airplane into the Everglades- he was supposed to be on it. He stays underground, gets his wife to get the settlement money, then runs off to nurse his gambling problem and delusions of grandeur. Chili goes out after him- not only can he get his relatively small debt back, but he can get some of that settlement money. Chili’s an entrepreneurial type, so while he’s not quite nailing his mark in Vegas, a casino owner contracts him to collect a debt from a b-movie director in LA. And from there, Chili gets into some shenanigans involving the director, the director’s attempts to break through to respectable filmmaking via a good script, some drug dealers who had been funding the director who now want in on the script, a thespian they’re trying to get to act in it, some horniness for a scream queen, an old mob rival of Chili’s coming to town, etc.
Lots of ingredients in the stew! It comes out pretty well, but one weird thing with Leonard – or, again, the two I’ve read of him so far, both from the same era of his long career – is that it never feels that tense. Sometimes that’s a good thing- that sort of “lived in” quality to the books I mentioned. Chili, especially, likes to wax expansive. Sure, he’s a loan shark, but he’s not an animal. Mostly he makes his way with confidence and a refusal to take bullshit, and he helps people get credit who couldn’t otherwise! An interesting look at the era immediately before decades of cheap money and the expansion of credit card usage. Also, it’s always interesting to see the ways in which given eras depict criminals as heroes. The sixties and seventies went in for criminals who really were at odds with social norms, like Bonnie and Clyde just spraying bullets everywhere and crowds of arthouse viewers applauding every shot. By the nineties, you have the idea of the good criminal as, essentially, a better upholder of social codes – not necessarily the social codes most people live by, but some kind of code – than hypocritical straight society. Chili Palmer is that kind of guy. His main criminal rivals are a little less honorable but not awful, and his criminal foils are the two kinds of bad criminals, as far as crime writing then (and, basically, now) are concerned- psychos and phonies.
Truth be told, I was more invested in thinking about how Leonard thought about character, place, crime, etc than I was in the plot. This is often the case for me and crime writing, but the gap is usually a little smaller. Still and all, this was a pretty enjoyable book. I’m still waiting for Leonard to really rock me with one of his books, but I don’t mind going through them until that happens. ****