Dan and I recently dived into Elmore Leonard very heavily, almost to the point where we were stuck to him like br’er rabbit to the tar baby. Or maybe it was the fox who got stuck. Point is, shortly after he died, we picked up one book after another, whether we’d read it before or not. Talking back and forth, Dan asked at one point whether Elmore was a great writer. A question I’d considered in a peripheral way, but never confronted. I thought about it, and I decided, and here’s what I decided to think.
There are all kinds of great writers. Dan mentioned Pynchon as someone who’s great but inaccessible. Much of Joyce is like that to me. Dubliners? Portrait of an Artist? I revere them. Ulysses? Hard work and admirable but not all that satisfying overall. Finnegan’s Wake? I guess I’m just not smart enough. It seems to me that great writing, in addition to invoking the admiration of the literati, ought to touch the heart of the common, intelligent reader.
Give my any Faulkner, for example. Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury are right up there with any high-falutin’ style pioneer the high lit crowd can bring on, but he pulls you in and wraps the story around you even when you are not quite sure you’re getting everything. And no one’s better at that than Yeats, are they?
So where does that put Elmore? There’s a theory I read once that art is great in proportion to the amount of reality it can encompass, Shakespeare begin the iconic example of a writer with appeal to the entire spectrum of humanity along with unmatched literary brilliance. Faulkner belongs in that crowd. Tolstoy. Probably Erdrich. Maybe Coetze. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s look at Graham Greene.
Greene divided his work into serious novels (Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory) and “entertainments”, (Travels with my Aunt, Our Man in Havana). The novels were meant to delve deeply into character and philosophy as they told their stories. The entertainments he meant to skim the surface, though he employs great skill and perspicacity in constructing plot and character. You’d never accuse him of sloppy or inconsequential writing in any of this work.
That’s where I put Leonard. In the top tier of artists who stake out a relatively narrow territory and explore it with consummate intelligence and understanding. He ain’t Faulkner any more than than Elvis was Domingo, but Domingo would make a lousy Elvis, and who would want a world without either one? Elmore’s writing is good writing because he’s got both style and insight. The great Leo in all his ponderous pages of War and Peace never left me laughing the way Elmore did when his alligator ate the dog in Maximum Bob. Every single one of his characters belongs to a world of rather limited boundaries, but every single one is vivid and speaks with an individual, unmistakeable voice. Voices so distinctive you’d recognize them right away if they called you on the phone.
So, is Elmore great? Yeah. He’s (was) great at what he does (did), and what he did was damned good writing that anyone with a sixth grade education or a bundle of college degrees could love and admire and remember. If the focus was too narrow to qualify for that upper tier … well, I doubt it bothered him, and hat sure as hell doesn’t bother me. I’ve got a list of his stuff I haven’t read, and it’s a brand new year. Onward.