I picked up a copy of Rum Punch from a place I was staying on a recent vacation. Having somehow missed it among all the Elmore Leonard I had read, having also solid reason to believe it would lie neglected on the shelf where I found it, I decided to give it a new home. According to the message penciled inside the battered cover, it had cost somebody only 2 pounds sterling, so no great loss if I never get back to Bradford-on-Avon to return it.
Then, a few pages into it, I got the word. Coincidence only that, after a couple of years’ lapse, I’m reading the master just when he shuffles off the mortal coil? A mystery not worth pondering, but it is worth reminding myself what influence he’s wrought on American fiction. I realize that I can add little or nothing to the reams of observations from others, but that’s no reason to keep my mouth shut.Just, for example, in the elliptical sentence structure he invented. Almost a new language. A style like Richard Pryce’s ghetto-eloquent would have been impossible without Leonard’s work before:
“No I don’t imagine you know what you want.”
Louis said, “You don’t, huh?” [Just that: the dialogue tag in front of instead of behind the quote.]
“Giving me the convict stare. . .” [Not, “Don’t give me that convict stare.” The present participle keeping the action moving. . .]
Smiled then to show he was kidding. Ordell in linen and gold, orange crew-neck sweater and white slacks, the gold shining on his neck, his wrist, and two of his fingers. [The description of clothing (and previously, hair style) moving as part of the action instead of a separate passage. And “Smiled” instead of “He smiled.”]
“Man, I’m telling you, fate’s been working its ass off, getting uls all together here. What I’m thinking of doing, introducing Big Guy to Melanie.”
Leading up to something. Louis could feel it. [Not, “What I’m thinking of doing IS introducing” or “He was leading up to something.” Just, again, that little ellipsis keeping things moving.]
Or, how about character in twenty-five words less of razor-sharp dialogue?
Jackie said, . . . “You wouldn’t happen to have a pack of cigarettes you could let me have.”
He said, “I don’t smoke.”
She said, “I didn’t think so.”
Rum Punch is a pretty famous book, and not exactly new. It’s set in Miami, all about gun-running and dope. The 1997 movie is Jackie Brown named after one of the main characters. Tarantino directed a young and lithe Samuel L. Jackson in the lead. Pam Grier in the title role. De Niro and Michael Keaton along for the ride. They moved it from Miami to L.A., which doesn’t hurt anything. I didn’t like the ending, but the rest of the film gets it right.
The plot is complex, but not a brain-buster. Very funny in many parts. We meet the corrupt , the semi-corrupt, and the uncorruptible. Full range of human nature in less then 300 pages. By the end, we’ve become deeply committed to two characters who–surprise to us and the themselves–have fallen in love. A bail-bondsman and an aging stewardess plagued by bad luck and bad choices in men. In addition to all the cops-and-robbers stuff, we’re captivated by the mystery of how this couple will handle their situation.
That’s another of Leonard’s gifts, to write a book about people with guns that depends on our attachment as much to character as to action. I’m sorry there won’t be another Get Shorty or 3:10 to Yuma. But Justified’s still running on TV. Timothy Oliphant is not the perfect Raylan Givens, but it’s still got some solid writing going for it. Good for us old guys.