The Best New Thing I’ve Read in Weeks

This Anthony Lane homage to Elmore Leonard is not only the best thing I’ve read on Leonard. It’s the best new thing I’ve read in weeks. Every sentence rings. Here’s a prime bit:

One problem was that a single page of him made other writers, especially the loftier and more lauded variety, seem about as legible as wallpaper paste. I recall being given a copy of “The Sea, the Sea,” the Iris Murdoch novel that won the Booker Prize in 1978. It came heartily recommended, so I wasted no time in laying it side by side with “The Switch,” which had been published in the same year. A random sample, from Dame Iris:

Oh, he was slippery, slippery, touchy, proud. I must hold him, I must be tactful, careful, gentle, firm, I must understand how. Everything, everything, I felt, now depended on Titus, he was the centre of the world, he was the key. I was filled with painful and joyful emotions and the absolute need to conceal them. I could so easily, here, alarm, offend, disgust.

Huh? It’s like being swallowed alive by a giant thesaurus. How are we supposed to work out, with any precision, what these fellows actually mean, through veils of verbal blubber such as that? Meanwhile, over in Detroit:

“You notice in the drive?” Ordell said to Louis. “He’s got an AMC Hornet, man, pure black, no shit on the outside at all, your plain unmarked car. But inside—tell him, Richard.”

Richard said, “Well, I got a rollbar. I got heavy-duty Gabriel Striders. I got a shotgun mount in front.”

“He’s got one of those flashers,” Ordell said. “Kojak reaches out, puts up on his roof?”

“Super Fireball with a magnetic bottom. Let’s see,” Richard said, “I got a Federal PA one-seventy electronic siren, you can work it wail, yelp, or hi-lo. Well, in the trunk I keep a Schermuly gas grenade gun, some other equipment. Night-chuk riot baton. An M-17 gas mask.” He thought a moment. “I got a Legster leg holster. You ever see one?”

Be honest, now: Which is better, Dame or Dutch? That is to say, leaving aside both snobbery and its inverse (for no fictional setting, genteel or rough, is intrinsically superior to any other), who is more alert to the life of an English sentence—its rises, failings, falls, and emergency stops? You know the answer. It certainly saved me from spending too much time on Booker Prize novels, whether winners or nominees, then as now. Decades on, I still laugh at the Kojak line, and it’s easy to imagine how a clumsier or less adventurous writer might have handled the same idea: “It’s the kind that Kojak has on TV. He reaches out and puts it up on the roof.” See? Dead on arrival. But technique is not all; more mysterious is what radiates out from such technical command, amid the speeches, and lends dramatic energy to the owners of the mouths. The Murdoch paragraph has a lot to say, but it leaves us utterly clueless as to what either Titus or the narrator is like; they earn no place in our mind’s eye. Whereas Ordell is right there in a couple of deft strokes, egging Richard on, and Richard himself, well, even the words “he thought a moment” put us instantly in the presence of a major blockhead—a wannabe cop, who, it transpires, collects Nazi memorabilia. Character is language in action.

Go have yourself a ball: The Dutch Accent: Elmore Leonard’s Talk : The New Yorker. Lane is one of our best, and he’s never been more inspired than here. Man is a animal.

2 Comments

  1. Well, if apples vs. oranges weren’t such a cliche…
    I love Lane – agree he’s a fabulous critic, with his own delightful way around a sentence, but this comparison does seem unjust to Murdoch. Her style and her way of unfolding a character come from a different place and demand different things from her reader. Her project is not Leonard’s; nor his, hers.

    While I think Lane is spot-on in his praise of Leonard, he unfairly used Murdoch. Not that I care that much. Murdoch always struck me as cold. Leonard delighted me.

    1. Cynthia, I’m inclined to agree: The comparison (which likely takes a particularly tangled passage from Murdoch) seems a bit unfair. On the other hand, certainly makes his point. And the tribute as a whole is a great romp.

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