When news came of Martin Amis' death, I, like many, thought not only about his fiction but of how good his non-fiction writing is. In this vein, the first thing that popped into my mind, of all things, was the review he wrote on May 14, 1995 of Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap for the New York Sunday Times Book Review. This is a review I read at the time, on that Sunday, since in those days I bought the physical edition of the Sunday Times nearly every week and read the Sunday book review regularly.
"LET us attempt to narrow it down. Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. He belongs, then, not to the mainstream but to the genres (before he wrote thrillers, he wrote westerns). Whereas genre fiction, on the whole, heavily relies on plot, mainstream fiction, famously, has only about a dozen plots to recombinate (boy meets girl, good beats bad and so on). But Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner's Tales, in which Death roams the land -- usually Miami and Detroit -- disguised as money.
Nevertheless, Mr. Leonard possesses gifts -- of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing -- that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet. And the question is: How does he allow these gifts play, in his efficient, unpretentious and (delightfully) similar yarns about semiliterate hustlers, mobsters, go-go dancers, cocktail waitresses, loan sharks, bounty hunters, blackmailers and crime syndicate executioners? My answer may sound reductive, but here goes: The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.
What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence -- or let's say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing "Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County," Mr. Leonard writes, "Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County." He writes, "Bobby saying," and then opens quotes. He writes, "Dawn saying," and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players' hidden minds. He doesn't just show you what these people say and do. He shows you where they breathe."
Post a Comment