Elmore Leonard, Bad Guys

October 11: On this day in 1925 Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans. Leonard spent most of his first decade in the South, moving from city to city as his father scouted dealership sites for GM. By the time he was ten, Leonard's family had settled in Detroit, and his David Copperfield years—one early review labeled Leonard the "Dickens of Detroit" and this has stuck—were spent in an All-American way: quarterback of the football team, pitcher for the baseball team, a casual approach to school, and a writing career which began in the advertising department of Chevrolet. Leonard's adman specialty was trucks, and in one of his rejected ads, based on an endorsement sent in by one trucker, we perhaps see the future novelist: "You don't wear that sonofabitch out, you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one." Leonard turned this sort of dialogue into his stylistic goal: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." The result, says Martin Amis in The War Against Cliché, is "literary genius" which capitalizes on a postmodern world of "wised-up rabble and zero authenticity":

His characters are equipped not with obligingly suggestive childhoods or case histories, but with a cranial jukebox of situation comedies and talk shows and advertising jingles, their dreams and dreads all mediated and secondhand. They are not lost souls or dead souls. Terrible and pitiable (and often downright endearing), they are simply junk souls: quarter pounders, with cheese.

Leonard resists such analysis, preferring to talk about bad guys and good guys and the gray area in between:

When I'm fashioning my bad guys, though (and sometimes a good guy has had a criminal past and then he can go either way; to me, he's the best kind of character to have), I don't think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they're going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank. Because that's the way they are....

 

Read our 2009 interview with Elmore Leonard.

 

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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