The Red White and Blue
Even those who don’t care for crime fiction may like what Elmore Leonard makes of it, especially his way of representing common or low American voices. Consider this splendid speech in Bandits, by an old but still lively Louisiana bank robber banished by his relatives to a shabby nursing home:
“My boy wanted me to stay with them, I mean live there,” Cullen said. “It was Mary Jo was the problem. She’d been thinking about having a nervous breakdown ever since [her daughter] Joellen run off to Muscle Shoals to become a recording artist…. See, Mary Jo, all she knows how to do is keep house. She don’t watch TV, she either waxes furniture or makes cookies or sews on buttons. I said to Tommy Junior, ‘What’s she do, tear ‘em off so she can sew ‘em back on?’ I got a picture in my mind of that woman biting thread. First day I’m there, I look around, I don’t see any ashtrays. There’s one, but it’s got buttons in it. I go to use it, Mary Jo says, ‘That is not an ashtray. We don’t have ashtrays in this house.’ I ask her, well, how about a coffee can lid I could use? She says if I’m gonna smoke I have to do it in the backyard. Not in the front. She was afraid the neighbors might see me and then she’d have to introduce me. ‘Oh, this is Tommy’s dad. He’s been in the can the last twenty-seven years.’ See, it’s bad enough Joellen takes off with this guy says he’s gonna make her a record star. Mary Jo sees me sleeping in her little girl’s bedroom with the stuffed animals and Barbie and Ken and she can’t handle it, even sewing on buttons all day. She keeps sticking her finger with the fucking needle and it’s my fault. So I have to leave….”
It looks easy—just suppress some conjunctions and relative pronouns, start a few sentences with “See,” throw in an occasional defective verb tense or downhome locution, and life leaps at you off the page. But as in the “realistic” speech in Dickens or Joyce or Hemingway, it takes art to show Cullen’s knack for ironic mimicry (“become a recording artist” must be how Joellen, or Mary Jo, put it—Cullen himself later just says “record star”), the folkish shrewdness in a phrase like “thinking about having a nervous breakdown,” his malicious imagining of Mary Jo’s regal prissiness (“We don’t have ashtrays in this house”) collapsing into “been in the can,” a verbal betrayal by the lawless indecorum she so badly wants kept outside. Cullen knows that her obsessive sewing is material for comedy, and he understands, quite unforgivingly, that it comes from her powerlessness to “handle” the rest of her disappointing life.
In Bandits Leonard directs his artful renditions of common reality toward …