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Monday, June 14, 2010

Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard

(Note: those of you looking for chapters of my Las Vegas Vampire Novel should go here.)

As I've mentioned before, I re-read books. Not all of them, mind you. Just the ones I enjoy. And I've just finished re-reading Elmore Leonard's Road Dogs.

Since George V. Higgins died, Elmore Leonard has had the throne of American crime fiction to himself. But the truth is, Leonard got there before Higgins even showed up, and Leonard shared it while Higgins was with us. There are better-selling crime novelists alive today, but none are as good as Elmore Leonard.

Road Dogs is Elmore Leonard's forty-second novel. He's been publishing them since the 1950's, when he started his career writing westerns. And, over that time, Leonard has developed a stripped-down, fluid style that focuses on dialogue and action, which would explain why his novels lend themselves so easily to movie adaptations.

The best movie adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel is Out of Sight, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (although Quentin Tarantino's star-studded Jackie Brown is a close second, sharing that spot with Get Shorty). I hear that the movie adapation of Freaky Deaky is coming out soon, so we'll see if it's a worthy addition to the group. It could turn out to be another Killshot or, worse, another The Big Bounce.

Road Dogs brings back characters from several previous novels, most notably the character of Jack Foley, the charming bank robber from Out of Sight. He was played by George Clooney in the movie, and it's easy to visualize Clooney reprising the role. In Road Dogs, Foley is as cool, and as conflicted, as ever. He also gets more than his share of attention from the ladies.

The other two returning characters are Cundo Rey, the hot-blooded crook from La Brava, and Dawn Navarro, the sexy psychic con-artist from Riding the Rap. Forget what anyone says about the problems of synchronizing the chronologies of novels that were written in different decades. Leonard makes it work like the proverbial well-oiled machine, explaining just enough to keep the wheels turning.

Road Dogs plays out as a kind of triangular standoff between Jack, Cundo, and Dawn, with a generous helping of vivid minor characters to fill out the story. When the book starts, Cundo and Jack are in prison together, acting as mutual protectors -- the "Road Dogs" of the title. Then Cundo does Jack a favor that gets Jack released from prison, and Cundo sends Jack to Dawn.

Why does Cundo do all this? Therein lies the crux. It could be out of generosity. Or it could be for some ulterior motive. Jack isn't sure, and neither is Dawn. But that doesn't stop the two of them from engaging in some maneuverings of their own. These include setting up a famous widowed actress for a romantic ghostbusting and sussing out Cundo's business partner to tally the extent of his real-world assets.

When Cundo himself gets released from prison, he joins Jack and Dawn in Venice, California, and the fireworks start. Will Jack and Cundo's "Road Dog" relationship in prison translate to true friendship in the outside world? Will Jack return to the ways that made him infamous and got him incarcerated? Will Dawn get the better of these two men for her own purposes? Are they really at odds, or are they just so jaded they are incapable of real trust?

As the author lets these issues play out, he entertains us with some of the best dialog in the business. Much gets made of the fact that Leonard eschews description and exposition, but it's there. He just wraps it in so much dialog that it gets absorbed effortlessly, letting the reader focus on the action. Leonard is a master of narrative economy.

A while ago, Leonard published his "10 Rules for Writing" and one of its more interesting aspects is that he provides counter-examples for most of his rules. He does, of course, embody his rules in his own work. But he's also cognizant that his rules don't work for everyone. On his famous admonition to never open with weather, he mentions Barry Lopez, "who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow." It's this kind of generosity of spirit and openness to variation that separates geniuses from hacks.

Road Dogs concludes in short and brutal fashion. It's a crime novel, after all. But it's a crime novel where even the walk-ons get their due, where every conversation is both a character portrait and a plot point.

I heartily recommend it.

by Elmore Leonard

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