Thursday, November 10, 2011

Elmore Leonard: Comic Realism

The original 1969 hardback cover of Elmore Leonrad’s “The Moonshine War” describes the novel as one of “suspense and comic realism,” as if perplexed editors at Doubleday couldn’t quite decide what Leonard—then the author of seven novels, including five excellent westerns—was all about, and they didn’t trust a reader to figure it out for himself. Yes, the Depression-set “Moonshine War” has some terrific scenes of suspense, including one in a Kentucky country diner in which one of the bad guys makes a young couple strip because he wants to wear the man’s suit and give the woman’s dress to his boss’s mistress.
And yes, there are moments of humor, always a gift from a prolific writer whose dialogue is so good you hear it spoken by actors you’ve cast in the movie Leonard creates in your mind (not to mention Quentin Tarantino’s mind, for Tarantino has been paying homage to Leonard from “Reservoir Dogs” on, and it should be no surprise that his best film is “Jackie Brown,” based on Leonard’s “Rum Punch—nor should it be much of a shock that Tarantino’s newest script “Django Unchained” seems to derive some inspiration from Leonard’s “Forty Lashes Less One”).
So yes, “The Moonshine War” is a novel of suspense and comic realism, and comes equipped with the standard elements that have made Leonard such a reliable pro for more than 50 years: a stoic, world-weary hero who may break the law but does it with style, eschewing violence until necessary; multiple villains who aren’t always villainous, although most fail to redeem themselves by story’s end; alluring women, often smart and gifted with clever survival skills, both psychological and physical.
While “The Moonshine War,” which was made in 1970 into a little-seen movie starring Alan Alda and Patrick McGoohan, may be lesser Leonard, lesser Leonard is still better than most of what’s out there, and the novel is well-worth digging up at a used-book store or library.
Like “The Moonshine War,” FX’s “Justified” has roots in the back roads of Kentucky, specifically Harlan County. Raylan Givens, a Stetson wearing U.S. Marshal with a quick trigger finger and accurate eye, kills a bad guy while seated in an al fresco restaurant in Miami, a little too public a place for a showdown. His reward: he is ostracized to his native state, where he seems to know every criminal and miscreant because he grew up among them.
Givens had appeared in two Leonard novels, “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap,” but it was a short story, “Fire In the Hole,” that apparently inspired writer Graham Yost to adapt the character for cable. After two seasons, “Justified” is one of the best series on TV, thanks to Yost and his staff, who channel Leonard while adding a bit of Erskine Caldwell and even Al Capp; the redneck villains can be quite funny, even when they go homicidal. Comic realism, I guess.
Timothy Olyphant nails Raylan, and the supporting cast is terrific, led by Walton Goggins (“The Shield”) as bad guy/good guy Boyd Crowder, and Margo Martindale, who won a best supporting Emmy this year—an award fully justified (sorry, couldn’t stop myself).
If you haven’t caught “Justified,”get it on Netflix and start with season one. Leonard likes the series so much that his next novel, due in January, is titled simply “Raylan.” Can’t wait.


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