As a young man, I was so enamored with Elmore Leonard that when I tried to write stories, I named my early protagonists Elmore, Elwood, Elvin. The heroes of my first unpublished novels were Elliot, and then finally Leonard (with a nod to Mr. Bruce). Unfortunately, I ran out of variations long before I got published, and even now, my two books make me a mere amateur compared to Leonard, who died Tuesday at 87 close to 50 novels to his name. I looked up to him, as did so many – he's one of those masters who make writers a little hysterical. As for readers, they must be beyond reckoning by now.
My mom introduced me to Leonard when I was about 13. It might have been "52 Pick-Up" that she gave me, or "City Primeval." We were both big fans of detective stories, of mysteries and thrillers. Leonard, to be honest, did not really write any of those. His books aren't puzzles with clues and clever solutions. None of his people are anything like Holmes, or even Philip Marlowe. They are much less heroic but also more fun. Sometimes they are criminals themselves, and even when they're cops or federal agents, they often seem just marginally more lawful than the villains.
And his villains – these are no masterminds plotting to rule the world. The fate of civilization or nuclear disaster are never at stake. These are just brutal, selfish people, willing to destroy others to get their way. Some of them are pretty dumb, which does not make them any less dangerous. This is one of the many tough truths he teaches us in his easy way: The terrible costs of stupidity and greed. His places, too, are ordinary places. He claimed Detroit first as his territory, (I am speaking here of the crime novels – I don't know the westerns that well); then as if he needed a vacation, he took over Florida, despite all the other operators in town. Even when he got restless and took us on a jaunt to Tel Aviv or Italy or Cuba, it somehow never seemed all that exotic. These were real places where regular people were chasing or fleeing their fates, and smalltime as they were, it was still always a matter of life and death.
That's what grabbed me as a teenager: Here was a world that felt alive, vibrant and unpredictable as reality, cut into clear, hard prose. You could strike a match on these sentences, flinty and plain as stone, but flashing into sparks when the surface was scratched. That flat, uninflected American prose, so famous finally it became a sort of gold standard for honest, un-fancy writing – he now seems like one of the last of his breed, a craftsman doing serious genre work back when that was still a real career. And that is part of why I loved him.
But I will say it, now that he is gone and can't scoff: Elmore Leonard was as sophisticated, as deep, and yes, as literary as they come. He was one of the great American writers of our time and I want to spend these last few hundred words saying why. First, take those free-flowing plots, swift, simple and true: This is unbelievably difficult to pull off. Not only do his characters bounce off each other like billiard balls in increasingly complex patterns, every move they make is natural, in character, a person simply doing what he or she would really do, thereby generating what the rest of us call a story.
Then there's that dialogue. That ear. How does anyone learn to write like that? Part of it is inexplicable, of course, a gift, like perfect pitch, ("I just make it up," he said.) But part comes from the same source as for Joyce or Proust: the love of language and joy in hearing people talk, listening closely until, having learned the tone, the song of a bookie or a cop, a stripper or a judge or a miner's wife, he was able to play them back to us. Even that famously no-style style is, after-all, a style: Flip open any of his books. Those rhythms, those odd sentence structures. That voice is as distinctive as any in contemporary fiction. And I'm sorry, folks, but I doubt that just following his famous Ten Rules will let you write like him. It takes a lifetime.
I did finally get to hear Leonard speak -- it was 2012, at the Center for Fiction in New York City. He described a new Raylan book he was thinking about, then qualified his pretty dark summary with, "But not serious. It won't be serious." This struck me; there is something oddly lighthearted about his books, considering how packed they are with psychos and killers, hustlers and losers, how high the body counts and how sadly low the stakes. Yet they are very funny, his people are really very funny, and he never forgets to let us in on how fun it all is, this world he's showing us, which is just like our world, America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
After the talk, I got to shake his hand and tell him the story about naming my heroes after him and running out of names before I had sold anything and he chuckled; so that was something, after all the times he made me chuckle. And I got to thank him for doing the work all real writers do: describe the world as they found it for the rest of us. He did a great job for a long time. Now he's done.