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Cops and Robbers

Tishomingo Blues is Elmore Leonard’s thirty-seventh novel. At that number you’d think he’d be flagging, but no, the maestro is in top form. If, like Graham Greene, he were in the habit of dividing his books into “novels” and “entertainments”—with, for instance, Pagan Babies and Cuba Libre in the former list, and Glitz, Get Shorty, and Be Cool in the latter—this one might fall on the “entertainment” side; but, as with Greene, those that might be consigned to the “entertainment” section are not necessarily of poorer quality.

Those offended by what my grandmother called “language,” and by what used to be termed, in adventure stories, “fearful oaths,” and by the derogatory epithets and salacious jokes that used to pass from mouth to ear in the smoking cars of trains and now whiz to and fro over the Internet, should avoid Tishomingo Blues. But Leonard is often and justly praised for his mastery of the demotic, and the demotic would not be itself without this kind of thing. Anyway it’s pretty much always apt: each character speaks in character. Here’s one of the more villainous heavies:

No mention of the smoke or the two greasers—Newton thinking of the one he’d asked that time where the nigger was and the one said he’d gone to fuck your wife. It had set him off, sure, even knowing it wasn’t true. One, Myrna wasn’t ever home, she played bingo every night of her life. And two, not even a smoke’d want to fuck her, Myrna going four hundred pounds on the hoof. Try and find the wet spot on her.
This is an object lesson in economy worthy of a short essay in Maladicta, the defunct scholarly journal devoted to foul language (still available on the Internet): three racial slurs, two F-words, misogyny combined with lookism, and a sneer at bingo players, all wrapped up in five terse lines. The man who speaks this will surely die. (“Good” characters in Leonard swear differently from the way “bad” characters do.)

As to what Leonard is up to beyond the texture of his prose, it’s what he’s been up to for some time. A good deal of any Leonard novel—or those of, say, the last twenty years—consists of deadpan social observation. John le Carré has maintained that, for the late twentieth century at least, the spy novel is the central fictional form, because it alone tackles the implementation of the hidden agendas that—we suspect, and as the evening news tends to confirm—surround us on all sides.1 Similarly, Elmore Leonard might argue—if he were given to argument, which he is not—that a novel without some sort of crime or scam in it can hardly claim to be an accurate representation of today’s reality. He might add that this is especially true when that reality is situated in America, home of Enron and of the world’s largest privately held arsenal, where casual murders are so common that most aren’t reported, and where the CIA encourages the growing and trading of narcotics to finance its foreign adventures.

Not only that—Leonard might continue, and it’s a point he’s copiously illustrated—the line between the law and the lawbreakers is, in his native land at any rate, not a firm one. (One of the nasties in this book is an ex-sheriff’s deputy, an employment category about which few have a good word to say.) In fact, the uncertainties about this division—law enforcers vs. lawbreakers, with coins tossed over who the villains are to be—goes far back, and is firmly embedded in American folklore. The Revolutionaries of 1776 were in essence rebels against the established government of their time, and ever since then there has been some question about who is entitled to impose what sort of legal code upon whom, and by what means. The Klan vigilantes and the lynch mob have been—as Leonard reminds us in this book—two of the less pleasant historical responses.

There are righteous causes in aid of which breaking the law is surely the moral thing to do, but who is to decide what those causes are? It’s a series of short steps from the rude bridge that spanned the flood, where the embattled and incidentally lawbreaking Concord farmers stood, to John Brown’s celebrated abolitionist and also homicidal Body, to Thoreau’s classic “Civil Disobedience,” to Darlin’ Corrie of the well-known folk song, who has to wake up and get her shotgun because the Revenooers are a-comin’ to tear her still-house down.

Like all writers who concern themselves with crimes and punishments, Leonard is interested in moral issues, but these issues are for him by no means clear-cut. Having been born in 1925, he entered the scene as a conscious observer during the half-century when this tendency—the questioning of law, the admiration of its breakers—was at its peak. It was the Thirties, and the Depression was causing much real desperation. No wonder that many followed the exploits of the James brothers and Bonnie and Clyde with a great deal of interest—young Leonard, by his own account, among them. For if oppression is economic, and the bank has grabbed your farm and turfed out your family, isn’t it at least slightly heroic to stick your hand in the till? The father who hangs in connection with such a crime in Davis Grubb’s Thirties-era novel The Night of the Hunter is not a bad guy: he’s a good guy, and it’s the system that hangs him that bears the moral taint.

But the James brothers and Bonnie and Clyde were not Robin Hoods, even in mythologized retellings. The American version of the robber as folk hero is very potent, but it doesn’t include giving to the poor: that would be sappy, and perhaps Communist as well. The best thing to do with the poor is to remove yourself from their number by any means at your disposal, and this is largely what Leonard’s crooks set out to accomplish. Thus, quite often in Leonard’s books you don’t get a choice between good non-criminals and bad criminals: instead, you get a choice between good guys and bad guys, period. There are many factors that determine whether a guy is good or bad—more specifically, whether he is an asshole, a pompous blowhard, a coward, a condescending jerk, a moron, or a man a man can respect—but which side of the legal line he happens to be on is not among them.

As every child who has ever played cops and robbers knows, it was more fun being a robber, because you could fool people and get away with forbidden behavior, and there was more risk. In Tishomingo Blues, fun, risk, forbidden behavior, and fooling people go together. There are two main characters. The first is not a criminal. Instead he’s an edge-dweller and risk-taker of another sort. He’s a professional high-diver called Dennis Lenahan, who makes a living at amusement parks going off an eighty-foot tower into a tank that looks, from above, to be the size of a fifty-cent piece. He does this, as far as we can tell, for three reasons: it gives him a rush, it helps him to pick up girls, and he has no other marketable skills. When we enter his picture he’s beginning to worry about how much longer he’ll be able to keep up the performances without breaking his neck. (Or rupturing his anus and ruining his genitalia, two other hazards of high-diving about which we are duly informed on the first page.) Dennis is not someone who’s ever given a thought to stock options or gated retirement communities—his first marriage failed because he was “too young,” and, although nearing forty, he’s still too young—so these are new and depressing thoughts for the likable lad.

Dennis soothes his anxieties by wafting into bed with nice women who never turn him down—well, he’s very fit—and this is the one matter that may give the female reader thoughtful pause. Leonard is precise about physicality in other respects. His characters piss, take dumps, fart, have bad breath, and much else. Unlike some fictional characters, they eat and drink, and they do this accurately, brand names and all. (Early Times, Pepsis, and Lean Cuisines are featured.) But Dennis floats into the sack with nary a question and nary a precaution: no thoughts of STDs trouble his enthusiastic head. Maybe this is accurate, too—probably it is, or there wouldn’t be so many cases of herpes, not to mention AIDS. But you want to whisper—especially when Dennis is tumbling around with the disaffected wife of a morally disgusting man who’s done hard time in an unsanitary prison—“Dennis honey, don’t you know who’s been in there before you?” Dennis, we fear, will wake up one morning with a dose of something he can’t get rid of. But such dismal futures lie outside the margins of the book, and to dwell too long on them would be like anticipating Cinderella’s wedding night, when she will pop out of her trance and realize that Prince Charming is a shoe fetishist.

The second main character has a lot more bulbs in his chandelier. The name he’s going by is Robert Taylor—we assume it’s assumed2—and he’s definitely a criminal element. He’s handsome, slick, personable, cool, well-dressed, Jaguar-driving, and from Detroit. (He also carries an attaché case with a gun in it, but this is a part of the country—Tunica, Mississippi—where people have guns the way most people have noses, so it elicits scant surprise.) In addition to all of the above, Robert is black. Add in the setting and an upcoming historical re-enactment of a Civil War battle, and you’ve got the nitroglycerine for the dynamite.

When I started reading about Tunica, Mississippi, as described by Elmore Leonard, it seemed so extravagantly over the top—even just archi- tecturally—that I thought I’d stumbled upon a made-up place, like the Emerald City of Oz, which it somewhat resembles. (Oz too is a city of illusions controlled by a scam artist who deceives people and holds out false promises.) But I should have known better, because Leonard doesn’t make up this sort of stuff. He doesn’t need to: it’s right there for the taking, in all its full-blown weirdness. Tunica is real—it’s “The Casino Capital of the South.” But it’s also made up, because the business of gambling is nothing if not the successful selling of illusion.

The connection between illusion and reality, lie and truth—and also the gap between them—is one of the leitmotifs that runs through Tishomingo Blues. Everything in Tunica is faux, including the whore-in-a-trailer pretending to be Barbie, and the “Southern Living Village,” a complex in the throes of development where all the dwellings are imitations of something else and the entire operation is a front for the drug trade. The focus of the story is the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino. Its name is ripped off from a real Native American chief; its form is a kitschy tepee; its cocktail waitresses wear fringed fake-buckskin miniskirts; its foyer mural is horrendously inaccurate. But though the décor in Tunica may be fake, the danger is real.

Dennis the diver lands in Tunica because he’s talked the manager of the casino into engaging his high-dive act as a customer attraction. Almost immediately he’s in trouble. While up on his tower and about to do a test dive, he sees two men down below shoot a third man. They see him seeing them. They’re about to pot him, but they get distracted. Robert Taylor, the black criminal, has witnessed the shooting too. He has also witnessed Dennis witnessing it. They strike up a curious symbiotic palship.

What does each want of the other? What Dennis ought to want is a goodbye handshake and a bus ticket to Nome, Alaska, but he’s a bit of an innocent and doesn’t know how afraid he ought to be. Also he doesn’t want to abandon his tower and his tank. So he sticks around, and Robert Taylor presents himself as a fellow who can help Dennis do that. Without Robert present, we fear, young Dennis’s brain will shortly be “red Cream of Wheat,” as other brains have been before. So Robert is our man.

But what does Robert Taylor want of Dennis? That’s more complicated. First version, he wants Dennis and his diving act to function as the laundry for his drug money, because he plans to take over the market from the local-yokel Dixie Mafia. Second version, he wants to buy Dennis’s soul. He puts that right on the table. “You at the crossroads, Dennis. I’m about to make an offer to buy your soul.” “Like Faust, man. Sell your soul, you get anything you want.” If Dennis sells, what he’ll get is mojo, and this mojo will enable him to realize his innermost dreams; but he’ll have to really believe it—otherwise it won’t work—and they have the one chance to grab it.3

For Robert isn’t just any old gangster. He’s invested with more significance than that. He’s the Master of the Crossroads, the deceiving prankster born and bred in the briar patch, the man who makes things happen. He’s the fast-talking salesman selling himself and riding on a shoeshine and a smile4; he’s the gambler with his sleeves stuffed with aces. He’s the deity you pray to when you want change and action, though there’s no guarantee of what kind of action you will get. He’s Mercury, god of thieves and commerce and communication and conductor of souls to the underworld, and he’s Anansi, African web-spinner, catcher of flies in traps. He teases Dennis by implying he’s the Devil, but if so he’s hardly the biblical Satan. Instead he’s the devil of folklore, whose bargains could work out in your favor, especially if you do what Dennis is urged to do—no matter what you see, keep your mouth shut.5 Robert is—in other words—a particularly engaging example of a trickster figure.6 “You gonna miss me, you know it?” he says toward the end of the book, as much to the reader as to the lady he’s taking leave of. “You gonna miss the fun.”

And he’s on solid home ground in Tunica. His roots—he claims—are right here, on the banks of the Mississippi River, the ur-river, the Old Man River. The Mississippi divides and binds all elements—North and South, white, black, and Indian, rich and poor, travelers and gamblers. It’s the river of Showboat, and, yes, Leonard dutifully supplies a beautiful quadroon who’s concealing her ancestry. It’s the river of Huck and Jim, the first white-black pair out to beat the odds and the scoundrels. It’s the river of the King and the Duke, seedy but amusing scammers-for-profit; and it’s the river of Melville’s Confidence Man, an elusive and ambiguous figure whose masquerades result—sometimes—in good.

Robert Taylor is the inheritor, then, of a long and many-stranded tradition. To watch him in action as he mines this rich lode is a pleasure, though it’s somewhat like what Monty Python did with Botticelli’s Venus—part humorous travesty, part straight aggression. Robert, for instance, is a history buff. “History can work for you,” he says, “you know how to use it,” and he does know how. He’s gone to college—he paid his tuition by dealing, but he wouldn’t sell to students because he figured their minds were already too addled:

I took eighteen hours of history—ask me a question about it, anything, like the names of famous assassins in history. Who shot Lincoln, Grover Cleveland. I took history ‘cause I loved it, man, not to get a job from it. I knew about the Civil War even before I saw it on TV, the one Ken Burns did. I stole the entire set of videos from Blockbuster.

Robert’s first history trick is to get hold of a 1915 souvenir postcard of a lynching, and to tell two different Tunica white bad guys that it’s his great-grandpa dangling from the bridge and their great-grandpa doing the hanging:

I thought maybe you already knew your great-granddaddy lynched that man in the picture, my own great-granddaddy, rest his soul. And cut his dick off. Can you imagine a man doing that to another man…? …I thought to myself, Lookit how our heritage is tied together, going back to our ancestors. Yeah, I’m gonna show him the historical fact of it.

Robert says this to a diehard racist and violent creep. This is Roots with a vengeance. “You only used it to set [him] up,” says Dennis of the postcard. “That don’t mean it ain’t real,” Robert replies.

Robert’s aim is to scam his way as an “African Confederate” into the reenactment of the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads (which will not take place at the real Brice’s Cross Roads, needless to say). That way, he can arrange for his opponents to be dispatched with real bullets—putting the history back into History, you might say. The Dixie Mafia’s tribute to authenticity, on the other hand, is to attempt to reenact the postcard lynching, with Robert playing the role of dickless corpse. As usual, Leonard has done his research; he has the rules and attitudes of the re-enactment movement down pat, and he plays them for all they’re worth. If you didn’t know about Naughty Child Pie and the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson salt-and-pepper shakers, and what farbs and hard-cores are, you’ll find out here.

Leonard doesn’t write whodunits—we always know who done it because we see them doing it. You might say he writes howdunits. His plots are like chess games—the pieces are all out in the open, we can watch the setup, but it’s the rapid moves of the endgame that surprise. They’re also like Feydeau farces, which is in no way to disparage them. Such performances are very hard to pull off successfully, and timing is everything: Feydeau used to compose with a stopwatch. The reader knows who is in which cupboard and under what bed and behind which bush, but the characters don’t know. Then they start figuring it out, and things move very quickly after that. The sleight-of-hand machinery in this book is engineered by Robert, of course: as chief trickster, he is after all the Master of Illusion.

But in this world of the amusement park and the dressups and the reenactment, of the façade, the disguise, and the sham, where does reality lie, and what’s actually worth having, and who has it? I’d say there’s one main thing, and that is the respect—not of everyone, because men who want that are vain and foolish—but of a man whose respect counts for something. (These are boys’ rules. Women aren’t players in the respect game, in the world of Tishomingo Blues: they earn favorable attention in other ways.) The ways of obtaining and evaluating this and other kinds of man-to-man respect could form the basis for a dissertation in sociobiology—the male primate stare, for instance, or who looks at whom, and how, and what it means.

Apart from being able to do the stare, you get respect—as far as I can figure out—by being serious about things that count, by not talking too much, by knowing what you’re talking about—there’s a lot of lore-exchanging in this book, about the blues and their singers, about the Civil War, about how to set up a diving tank, and, rather less enchantingly, about baseball games of yore.7 If you already have respect, and especially if you’re a criminal kingpin, you have to keep the respect by not getting lazy and arrogant, or it’ll be the Cream of Wheat brain for you.

But most of all you get the respect by making a hard thing look easy. This is how Dennis gets Robert’s respect. “I love to watch people who make what they do look easy. No flaws, nothing sticking out,” he says about Dennis’s act. A third party comments, “The guy high in the air, twisting and turning, is in control of himself, showing how cool he is. And Robert’s cool. He keeps Dennis around because he respects him as a man.” Women don’t evaluate this kind of behavior in quite the same way. When Dennis doses his clothing in high-test gasoline and torches himself for a fireball jump, Robert says, “Man.” But his female companion says, “Big fucking deal.” When women do admire Dennis, they’re looking at his body—what might be in it for them. But Robert’s admiring the guts and the technique.

Billy Darwin, Dennis’s employer, has his own version of “big fucking deal.” He makes the mistake of thinking that the thing is easy because it looks easy. He belittles what Dennis does, “sounding like a nice guy while putting you in your place, looking down at what you did for a living,” and then he tries diving off the tower himself to demonstrate his cool and to show what a snap it is. He comes to grief.

And this, possibly, is our one small peek behind the scenes, to the shadows where the author lurks. Could it be that Mr. Leonard has heard a few too many times that the thing he’s done professionally now for four decades, or thirty-seven times, is really easy because he makes it look easy? Just because it’s an amusement park and people are entertained by what you do, does that mean it’s not a serious skill? Could it be that he’d like to see a few of those kinds of commentators try jumping off the tower themselves? If you’ve been to the crossroads, and made the deal, and got the mojo—which turns out to be dependent on a great deal of hard work and practice, just like sleight-of-hand—wouldn’t you maybe get a trifle riled by that kind of misjudgment from time to time?

Not so as to lose your cool, mind you. Not so much as that.

  1. 1

    Le Carré gave these views in his acceptance speech when granted an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh.

  2. 2

    Robert Taylor” was the assumed name of the actor who, besides being a famous romantic lead, starred in a huge number of crime and Western films. He played, for instance, Billy the Kid in the eponymous film in 1941. As someone says in Tishomingo Blues, “working for Robert…was like being in the fucking movies.”

  3. 3

    It’s odd to find the sentiments of the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio on the lips of Robert Taylor. But then, wishing upon a star, makes no difference who you are, is partly what distinguishes Taylor from the bad guys: he’s dreaming his own version of the American Dream.

  4. 4

    Robert Taylor is the mirror image of Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman. The latter is the dishonest “honest” man, the former the honest dishonest one.

  5. 5

    See for instance the Grimms’ tale “The Devil’s Sooty Brother.” In such stories the hero, if lucky and prompt, can obtain the Devil’s bounty and keep his own soul too, and this is what Dennis does.

  6. 6

    For much more, see Lewis Hyde’s thorough study, Trickster Makes This World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). Hyde makes the point however that in a nation paved from end to end with snake-oil salesmen, the Trickster doesn’t function quite as usual.

  7. 7

    The character who drones on about baseball is intended to be boring. The trick is to see how he interjects his obsession into any topic whatsoever. If you get tired of it you can do what Dennis does—tune out.

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