This has been my year of reading genre-ously. There were a couple of dips into familiar but rarely visited genres – William Gibson’s lackluster new science fiction novel, Zero History, and Elmore Leonard’s dazzling new crime novel, Djibouti. If it was disappointing to see a gifted SF trailblazer struggling in mid-career, it was a genuine joy to see our greatest crime writer going strong as train smoke at the ripe age of 85.
But after a lifetime devoted almost exclusively to reading literary fiction, my eyes were finally opened to the boundless possibilities of genre writing by the fantasy novelist China Mieville. When I decided to take the plunge, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years but had never done before: I started with Mieville’s first novel, King Rat from 1998, and read his entire output in chronological order, finishing with his seventh and most recent novel, Kraken, from this year. I think Kraken is Mieville’s best novel yet, and this is what I wrote about the imaginary London he conjures in it: “Like all of his worlds, it is not merely plausible, it is engrossing precisely because it demolishes old notions of plausibility and writes its own. In other words, it’s an eye-opener, a revelation.”
Re-reading those words, I was reminded of something Flannery O’Connor wrote about the demands placed on the writer of fantasy: “Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real – whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic… I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein – because the greater the story’s strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.”
O’Connor cites Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as a story that lives up to these high standards. I would add the seven novels of China Mieville, which are fantastic because they are so real, and so real that they are fantastic. And pure reading pleasure.
While I was writing the above, a fresh slab of genre arrived in the mail – Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection. It was written by another Detroit crime writer, Loren D. Estleman, who is not a household name like Elmore Leonard, but deserves to be. Estleman and I have been pen pals for nearly 20 years and in that time I’ve read a dozen of his novels, including several built around Amos Walker, his delightfully gruff Detroit private eye. The new collection contains 33 stories and runs to 637 pages, which means I’ve got something to keep me warm through a long cold winter.
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Walker Percy was a big Elmore Leonard fan. Way back in 1987, during the high noon of a career that has now reached its rich and plummy twilight, Percy asked: “Why is Elmore Leonard so good?” Percy answered: “He doesn’t stick to the same guy in the same place.” And: “You begin to notice his prose, the way he moves people around. People get shot in dependent clauses.” And: “The snap and crackle of the dialogue is something to hear.” To wit: “(Leonard) often drops the word ‘if’ in dialogue – and uses hardly any conjunctions. ‘I had a tire iron we could find out in ten minutes.’ This sentence could use an ‘if’ and a comma and would be worse for it. Yes, Mr. Leonard knows what he’s doing.”
Indeed he does. And he proves it yet again with his new novel, Djibouti, which takes us from more familiar Leonard haunts – Detroit, Miami, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Atlantic City, New Orleans – all the way to that charming open sewer of a city on the Gulf of Aden that gives the book its title. Leonard’s two heroes, film-maker Dara Barr and her 6-foot-6, 72-year-old black cameraman Xavier LeBo, have come here for a little change of pace. After winning major awards, including an Oscar, for documentaries about Bosnia, white supremacists and post-Katrina New Orleans, Dara wants to try her hand at filming some Somali pirates doing what they do so well – hijacking humongous freighters and holding them for humongous ransoms.
Xavier, a street-smart former merchant seaman, has sailed these treacherous waters many times, and he wastes no time giving Dara the lay of the land and introducing her to a cast of characters who, in time-honored Leonard style, are rarely what they appear to be. There’s a loose cannon of a Texas billionaire named Billy Wynn, who may or may not be CIA but who is definitely sailing around the world with a knockout named Helene, a Paris runway model who will become Mrs. Wynn if she can make the trip without whining or getting seasick. There’s Idris Mohammed, an American-educated Somali pirate who drives a Mercedes and doesn’t see himself or his crew as villains: “I think of us as the Coast Guard giving out fines to ships that contaminate our seas, thousands of them leaving their waste in the waters we once fished.”
Then there’s Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, “known as Harry in England,” one of the “good” guys who tries to dissuade pirates from being pirates but isn’t above selling them AK-47s so they can sell them at double the price to local gangsters and warlords. And finally there’s Jama Raisuli, born James Russell, a black Al Qaeda terrorist from Miami who has come here looking to blow up something big. Like maybe that tanker full of Liquid Natural Gas parked offshore.
All of the virtues listed by Walker Percy are on display here, along with several he neglected to mention, most notably the moral ambiguity of all the characters and all their causes, which is the tool Leonard uses to make his points while he makes us laugh. Billy sums up this pervasive moral ambiguity: “There’s no way to tell who’s good and who’s bad in this fucked-up Mohammedan world.” This is neither politically incorrect nor insensitive because Leonard is an equal-opportunity satirist; he skewers not only religious zealots but the CIA, pirates, rich Republicans, Hollywood phonies and jihadists, in no particular order.
And when Billy gets wound up on his beverage of choice, $150 bottles of champagne, and starts waxing patriotic, Helene, the funniest character in the book, thinks to herself: “He was the guy Sterling Hayden played in Dr. Strangelove, General Jack D. Ripper. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the subtitle. Sterling Hayden was so serious he was weird. Calm, talking about the Communist conspiracy to put fluoridation in our drinking water to fuck up our precious bodily fluids.”
When Helene confides to Dara that Billy wants to blow up the LNG tanker here so that Al Qaeda won’t be able to blow it up once it reaches Louisiana, Dara muses: “I’m guessing. He’d like to be known as a war hero who got the Medal of Honor posthumously without dying.”
After shooting a lot of footage of pirates, Dara and Xavier begin to wonder if they should be making a feature film instead of a documentary. While this allows Leonard to do some clever riffing on the inanity of Hollywood, it also points up the book’s main flaw, and it’s not a small one. For a hundred pages or so, Dara and Xavier sit in her hotel room in Djibouti watching the footage they shot while at sea, reliving adventures that have already happened. It makes for a choppy narrative. Only when Jama Raisula takes center stage and the dead bodies start piling up does the story take flight. Sometimes it’s good for a crime novel when the bad guys are just plain bad.
And Jama’s the goods. In a single scene he shoots five men, including his Al Qaeda mentor. In another he shoots a lovely prostitute through the brain. He shoots a former Navy SEAL hired by Billy. And when Dara and Xavier finish shooting their movie, Jama goes to New Orleans looking to shoot them.
As is the case with the dozen other Elmore Leonard novels I’ve read, Djibouti succeeds largely because of the things that got left out. Back story, exposition, physical descriptions of characters and scenery, weather, exclamation points, adverbs – all are in short supply here. And Leonard always stays behind the scenes, where he belongs.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he once said. Elsewhere he has said that when he was learning to write fiction he became a great admirer of Hemingway. “You study him closely,” Leonard said, “and you realize all the stuff he leaves out that you think is in the story. That’s always interested me.”
It still interests him. And that may be the main reason why, at the ripe age of 85, Elmore Leonard is still so good.
Just in time for today’s Booker announcement, a pair of shortlisters are now (or will be tomorrow) available stateside: In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut and The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Ian Frazier’s big travelogue (generously excerpted in the New Yorker) Travels in Siberia is out, as is Adam Levin’s massive The Instructions from McSweeney’s. Three more: Djibouti by Elmore Leonard, How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu, and a gorgeous Library of America edition of “six novels in woodcuts” by pioneering graphic novelist Lynd Ward.