Page 18


Rebellious Lit BY MICHAEL KING GET SHORTY By Elmore Leonard New York: Delacorte, 1990, 292 pages, $18.95 ELMORE LEONARD’S latest novel moves effortlessly from his half-lit, monochrome worlds of Detroit, Miami, New Orleans and environs, to the klieg lights of L.A. and movie-land. Predictably, Leonard’s Hollywood retains his personal stamp: a demi-monde of hustlers, con-men, cynics, and hard cases, where the spoils belong to the quickest of hand and wit. Leonard is of course no stranger to the movie industry; several of his novels have been made , into films, and he himself has written a number of screenplays. But with a couple of exceptions, Leonard’s books haven’t been particularly well-served by their film versions. Mr. Majestyk became a Charles Bronson vehicle that at least retains some of the gritty feel of a Leonard novel, if not much of the substance. Burt Reynolds and Candice Bergen starred in a lifeless and clumsily parodistic version of Stick much of. the trouble stemmed from the fact that Reynolds’s role was cfonsiderably cleaned up from the book’s version of a rather grubby ex-con. A worse botch was made of FiftyTwo Pickup, one of Leonard’s best Detroit novels; despite the game efforts of co-stars Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret, the book’s bitterly uneasy atmosphere was transformed into a badly formulaic crime-thriller script. Perhaps the most successful “Leonard film,” made from one of his western novels, was Hombre, in which Paul Newman embodies the type of the Leonard protagonist: a “halfbreed” outcast, living in the spiritual border country between “civilization” and the “wilderness” welcomed in neither world, yet thereby morally free. The puzzling thing is that, in the reading, Leonard’s novels seem tailor-made for film; the dialogue, action, and scenic construction are precise and vivid, and would seem to translate almost easily to dramatization. The sticking-point seems to be the existentially grey moral universe normally inhabited by his central characters. Although they may look the part at first, they are not really action/romance heroes. They are too skeptical of received values and received ideas, too willing to walk the edges of criminality, and they have absolutely no tolerance for fools. Michael King lives in Houston. He is a frequent contributor to the Observer. 18 DECEMBER 7 1990 \(This last trait, of course, may be an especial handicap in La-La-Land. Leonard’s personal judgement of the Hollywood scene is reflected in the fact that he still makes his home in Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and many of his streetwise protagonists But as Get Shorty confirms, Leonard obviously knows Hollywood very well, and he knows intimately the cockamamie process that gets movies made the clumsy, corrupt, and fascinating system of options, deals, hustles, meetings, arm-twistings, and bootlickings reminiscent of the curious culture that lies behind Italian Renaissance art, and with somewhat the same spectacularly mixed bag of results. GORE VIDAL’S favorite joke about the movie business is the one told about the Polish starlet she slept with the writer. Get Shorty, with its wry redaction of the process whereby what is absurdly referred to as a “high concept” in fact “conceived,” is in many ways a writer’s revenge upon Hollywood. The “film. project” of the novel proceeds largely by a series of comic-opera accidents involving wildcat producers, rapacious agents, diffident and spoiled “stars,” dubious investors, and one affable and tenacious loan shark who wants to change careers. The project never involves, even for a moment, the so-called auteurs of academic film theory writers and directors. The loan shark’s name is Ernesto “Chili” Palmer, who got the nickname for his hot temper as a boy in Brooklyn. His friends now say he’s “chilled” down, and needs only a sharp look from his practiced “dead eyes” to intimidate recalcitrant customers. Characteristically for a Leonard novel, Chili has landed in Hollywood by a circuitous route. As the book opens he’s in Miami, where he moved from Brooklyn to convince his complaining wife that he’s out of the business; she finds out differently when he gets in a scrape with a local hoodlum over a “borrowed” leather coat. It takes 12 years, but the bested hoodlum, Ray “Bones” Barboni, eventually exacts a cumbersome revenge; he takes over Chili’s loan operation, and inadvertently sends Chili off chasing a “dead” customer, first to Vegas and then to Los Angeles. Leonard manages these odd and comic transitions so seamlessly that they appear natural, and their effect is to draw us into the world, sympathies, and point-of-view of Chili Palmer, before the Hollywood action even gets moving. Then the film project becomes a sort of McGuffin-in-motion: Chili has always been a movie buff, and his chase brings him into touch with B-flick producer Harry Zimm, in bad debt to his own unsavory “investors.” Before long, Chili has hired himself on as Zimm’s “consultant” in the promotion of a film. His explicit assignment is to keep the drug-running investors at bay; his own private purpose is to break into the movie business. \(Meanwhile, Chili’s old nemesis, Ray Bones, has picked up his This scattershot summation catches something of the chameleon-like transformation of Leonard’s plotting, bordering on the farfetched in conception but completely convincing in execution. His characters are forever in motion from one hustle or scam to another thus happily at home in filmdom. They generally have little to do with the workaday world that most of us inhabit \(indeed, they spend a good part of their time is of course a large part of their attraction. In book after book, Leonard has realized an imagined other-world that inhabits the shadows of our own, a world of more freedom, more risks, and potentially at least, more rewards. The region he maps in Get Shorty is shaded by suspense and danger, but the atmosphere is generally lighter and more comic in tone than in many of his earlier books. Chili Palmer is in a long line of self-made and self-sustained Leonard heroes \(like Odysseus, more are infrequent and the stakes seem almost incidental. For one thing, the screenplay for Zimm’s project, “Mr. Lovejoy,” is painfully bathetic, and it soon becomes apparent that we are reading a screenplay within a screenplay the vivid novel that is Chili’s own tale, and which by slow but inevitable degrees shoves Zirpm’s pet project aside. By the close of the book, even Leonard’s own title, which appears to be the standard sort of detective-novel teaser, turns out to be one more sly joke about the incidental deceptions of cinema. Leonard has been widely and deservedly praised for the naturalness and ironic punch of his dialogue, and the swiftness of his narratives. But the dialogue is only a special case of his larger talent, which is to nestle so comfortably inside the heads of his people that their thoughts seem as fluid as breathing, and each thinks always in a voice that is characteristically his or her own. Here, for example, is Chili considering his first glimpse of a big-time movie producer, Harry Zimm: 74, a.