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 a more difficult subject than realistic crime fiction usually takes on, the entrance of national nightmares into domestic dreams of money and personal freedom. In New Orleans Jack Delaney, an erstwhile clothing salesman, amateur fashion model, hotel jewel thief, and convict, now works in his brother-in-law’s funeral home. Nearing forty, educated by the Jesuits, at Tulane (for a year), and in Angola Penitentiary, Jack is no fool on his own turf, but he is not very knowing about the larger world outside it; “I’m not good at environment,” he cheerfully confesses, “I’m weak in those areas.” But that world intrudes on his all the same, in the person of Lucy Nichols, a young ex-nun just returned from Nicaragua. Lucy has given up the Sisters of Saint Francis but not her concern for good works, and she persuades Jack to help her save a young Nicaraguan beauty queen, Amelita Soza, whose brutal former lover, once a friend of Somoza and now a contra commander, seeks to kill her for (he frantically supposes) infecting him with leprosy.
Jack hasn’t kept up with the news from Central America, and his idea of religious sisterhood leans heavily on old Deborah Kerr movies and Sally Field playing the Flying Nun. But Lucy is attractive enough, and his present life dull enough, to induce him to help protect Amelita as well as to relieve Colonel Dagoberto (“Bertie”) Godoy of the large sums he has raised from rich right-wing Americans to aid the contras. Half the loot is to go to Jack and the gang he recruits for the project, but he’s also pleased that Lucy will take the rest to Nicaragua to help repair the harm Godoy and his ilk have done.
Leonard writes neatly and convincingly about most of the people in Bandits: the tough, monstrous, finally frivolous Godoy; his enigmatic Miskito Indian hit man, Franklin de Dios, who likes to ask, “How you doing?” but kills men as other men kill flies; Delaney’s buddy Roy Hicks, an ex-cop and ex-con whose nerve and ruthlessness scare even his friends; Jack Delaney himself, whose amiable, boyish recklessness isn’t big on idealistic causes but who knows that scheming and fighting for people you like is more fun than doing it just for money. Lucy and her well-connected oil-man father, who thinks of contributing to Godoy’s secret arms fund but decides it’s too risky an investment, seem flatter and more familiar; but one would not say this about the redneck gun dealer in Gulfport who dismisses the Klan as a “bunch of negative thinkers” because they don’t see that “commonism” is the real menace, or Jack’s old girlfriend Helene, who finds the techniques of embalming fascinating and decides to make it her profession. As for Ronald Reagan, it would be hard to improve on his testimonial letter to Godoy (“To assist you in delivering your message of freedom to all my good friends in Louisiana, I have written to each one personally to verify your credentials as a true representative of the Nicaraguan people, and to help affirm your determination to win a big one for democracy”).
Godoy aims, however, not at winning a big one for democracy but at securing a lot of big ones for himself and his drug-lord pals in Florida; he has no intention of delivering the money to the contras. It’s a touch that recent news makes plausible, but it leads to a difficulty in Bandits that Leonard’s other books don’t have. In them he deals sympathetically with people who are, or have been, criminals at least in some technical way, or with policemen whose occupational closeness to crime makes the line between good guys and bad guys sometimes hard to see. His is the familiar but still intriguing premise that, since hardly anyone is innocent in the old-fashioned sense, we are all potentially free to make a life with some new but authentic claim to value, a value based not on learned rules but on impulsive acts that will henceforth define us. The bad people in his books don’t accept this freedom, and they must pay the price, usually a grim one. But those who accept it may survive and even profit, though (old rules do die hard) usually not by getting rich. In the end Jack Delaney gives Lucy not half but all the contra money, though he still has Godoy’s new $60,000 Mercedes to sell off, and he isn’t sure he won’t keep the proceeds.
Leonard has sometimes used politics for fictional background—Cat Chaser, for instance, recalls the American intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965—but the moral implications of public policy in Bandits press much harder than before on personal behavior. Godoy’s people are not just bad characters, Detroit street hoods or Miami dope runners; they are agents of a social and political malaise that the author, to his credit, wants us to be seriously anxious about. Private guilt is not disabling in itself; Jack Delaney has stolen before and is ready, if not exactly eager, to steal again, especially for what he can consider a good cause. The danger for him isn’t guilt but going back to jail. Lucy Nichols is a nun who has always been on the right side, against her rich, complacent parents as well as ogres like Godoy; she has trouble thinking that stealing from Godoy is a crime, even if committed in the company of a thug like Roy Hicks, who seems as vicious as Godoy himself. But Jack and Lucy increasingly have to ask themselves if ends justify means, and even Hicks is puzzled when he learns that Godoy has the protection of certain local and federal authorities: “I want to know what side we’re supposed to be on,” he tells Jack, “the good guys or the bad guys.” He’s willing to be either, but it helps to know.
Godoy’s gunman probably gets closer than anyone else to the heart of the puzzle: “Franklin de Dios was wondering if he was certain about the sides. If there were more than two sides. If he was on the side he thought he was on or on a different side. He was getting a feeling, more and more, that he was alone.” (Franklin’s eventual decision that he is in fact alone and will not kill for anyone but himself is what makes things come out more or less justly for the others.) And the experienced reader of Leonard’s stories may also be doing some wondering. The book has proposed views of Godoy that don’t mesh: does he stand for a political nightmare in which the American government and private wealth conspire to support an odious public intention, or is he just a brutal crook like those in Leonard’s other novels, serving no intention save his own greed and machismo?
The latter view suits the genre Leonard has perfected; to side, as we do, with Jack and Lucy is only to prefer nominal lawlessness, in otherwise likeable people, to the real and ugly thing, and that seems no problem. But the moralizing political view, in which Leonard has invested so much effort and feeling, is harder to accept, even for a reader who suspects that the real contras are largely a pretext for corrupting conspiracies like the one the book describes. A real Godoy might of course combine both views, but Leonard’s kind of novel hasn’t enough room for such complexity. Bandits is not as efficient and coherent as Leonard’s best books, like LaBrava, Stick, and Split Images; but readers who care as much about what is happening in the political underworld as about crime books may feel glad that he wrote it.
John Gregory Dunne’s central character in The Red White and Blue is also a youngish and somewhat passive Irish-American named Jack; he too encounters the difficulties of modern American reality through falling in love with a political activist; that reality is in both books significantly reflected by a revolution-torn Central American country; in both, prisons and the Catholic Church are forces that decisively affect the characters’ lives and fates. Leonard’s cool and stylized entertainment has little else in common with Dunne’s looser, darker, emotionally more strenuous tale, which aims more ambitiously at explaining recent American political history as the product of confused or debased conceptions of ourselves and our needs. But the books seem to be responses to similar worlds.
Dunne’s Jack Broderick is about as privileged as an American can be. The second son of an arrogant world-class financier who gave him $10 million but no respect, educated at Hotchkiss and Princeton, brother of a Benedictine who once appeared on the cover of Time and of the sister-in-law of a president of the United States, compiler of a best seller on Vietnam, and now a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Jack has suffered through times that made some less favored people suffer too. After college and two years in the peacetime Marines, he worked in San Francisco for one of his father’s newspapers in the early 1960s, met and eventually married Leah Kaye, a tough radical lawyer, and was drawn, skeptically, into her causes, among them the successful defense of a black convict who murdered an informer in Folsom Prison and the struggle of the Hispanic labor leader Onyx Leon to organize the California farm workers. In the meanwhile Jack’s brother, Dom Augustine Broderick (known as “Bro” to millions who watch him on television), becomes famous in the shadowy world between secular and church politics. Their sister Priscilla marries the younger brother of President Frederick Griswold (“Fritz”) Finn, has an affair with Fritz himself and with others of his circle, and dies at twenty-nine of a cerebral hemorrhage.
When his marriage to Leah fell apart in the late 1960s, Jack, always more a watcher than a doer, went to Vietnam as a correspondent, put together a book of interviews (Grunts) with American troops, and came home to write for the movies, marry and divorce a rich and promiscuous second wife, and observe the weird distortions of radical energies as old causes dwindled down. In the early 1980s he encounters Leah again, in the Central American country of Cristo Rey, where she is working with a human rights organization investigating a rightist oligarchy beset by revolutionists. Things go very badly in Cristo Rey. An American nun in Leah’s group is raped and killed by a government death squad; Onyx Leon is found murdered, his severed head stuffed into the stomach of a dead peasant woman; and the bombing of a beauty pageant (“Miss Global Village”) around which Jack is trying to construct a movie sets off a gun battle in which Miss Thailand and a piano player are caught in the cross fire and die. Back in San Francisco, history delivers its worst blow yet when Bro and Leah, despite their failings the only people Jack has ever loved, are gunned down on the steps of Glide Memorial by Richie Kane, an embittered Vietnam veteran whom Jack had interviewed in Grunts and who is now a failed candidate for county supervisor on an antigay platform. Jack understandably decides to leave America, perhaps permanently.
The Red White and Blue has the intricate design of a complex motion picture, with lots of flashbacks and tricky cross cutting. Dunne, who has written screenplays, makes the method work here—the book is continuously powerful, often both funny and horrifying, and never dull. Since the objections I have to raise against it may sound like objections to modern life itself, I should say first that, scene by scene, nothing Dunne shows us exceeds that life’s own power to appall. Yet I think there’s a cumulative effect of distortion, a reaching for a governing mood of disillusionment that often feels like the product not of generally experienced truth but of manipulated artistic choices.
Here, moral horror takes the form of a visceral disgust that seems to demand a certain amount of authorial rigging. For example, the criminal whose acquittal wins Leah Kaye her reputation as an advocate is (rightly) charged with having directed the prison murder of a stool pigeon. The victim, we learn, drowned to death when seventeen other convicts urinated in his mouth while he was tied down. That seems bad enough, but then life can be bad, in Folsom and elsewhere. But for Jack the horror centers on learning that the drowned man’s mouth was propped open with the stub of “a number three soft Dixon Ticonderoga” pencil. Jack feels that he ought not to have to know this “appalling simplicity”—for him such detail makes too vivid an event that should only be vaguely imaginable. The question posed seems to be, How tough are you? and Jack evidently isn’t tough enough. His way out is to deplore the “passion for specificity” of the TV news reporter (then his mistress) who calmly tells him about the pencil, and we might want to suppose either that Dunne also sees the mentality that detaches such a fact from its emotional and moral setting as a major sign of what’s gone wrong in America or that he is testing our own toughness of mind. But of course there is no pencil, no reporter, no Jack, no murder, except in the words Dunne himself chose to write this episode with; to be a little simple-minded about it, whatever comparable or even identical horrors life may be able to supply, this one sounds made up, by a writer who yet offers it as evidence of how dreadful recent reality has been.
All art, of course, selects and invents its evidences of the real. The question is how it is done, in what moods, with what intentions or effects, and here The Red White and Blue seems to me vulnerable. Dunne has a way of planting events that can then be both scorned and exploited. Early in the book, for example, Jack is offended and amused by a vulgar producer’s formula for good box office: “Nuns and midgets, that’s the ticket. Your story’s got a nun or a midget in it, you can’t go wrong.” Yet almost immediately Jack confesses to us that his story, this book, will contain both a nun and a midget, as indeed it does. Or later, after reporting some insulting remarks by his terrible father about Fulton J. Sheen, Clare and Henry Luce, and Dwight Eisenhower, Jack remarks that “As always I was amazed at my father’s capacity for slander”; but it’s Jack’s willingness to repeat such slanders, and behind that the author’s pleasure in making them up, that effectively creates the moment, and here the pleasure seems too much on display.
Nor am I as appalled as Dunne may intend by the book’s unrelenting measurement of people and their actions against the direst ideas available of what is human, as if the admitted reality of crotches and underwear, vaginal yeasts and crabs, casual fornication and fellatio and toilet paper somehow said what needs saying about the species. The world described has a remarkable amount of vomiting and diarrhea in it; it comes to seem almost predictable that a priest should wear a colostomy bag, that Jack should propose to Leah while sitting on a bidet, that a prisoner should be gassed in San Quentin while bleeding to death after slashing his throat, that a soldier should be blown up while masturbating in a latrine, that the suicide of another solder should accidently reveal, and kill, two of his buddies in homosexual congress in the next room. The problem is not taste, or credence, but a sense that the writing has locked itself into a narrow range of figurative resources, which it is doomed to elaborate in ever more baroque forms, as when Dunne describes the asphyxiation of a nightclub bouncer during after-hours coitus on a grand piano rigged to descend on wires when a grand entrance is called for; the poor man is crushed against the ceiling when the contraption accidentally goes back up, though his stripper partner survives because her silicone breast-implants give her some breathing room.
Somewhere in the midst of such stories the serious horror of being alive in times like these gives way to the fun of inventing or retailing newer and nastier horrors. Like Swift and Céline, Dunne sometimes seems overready to despair of us for having bodies with blood and wastes and organs inside, too interested in the old body-sex-death nexus to leave it clear that social and political disgust is the main subject. Certainly there are fine things in The Red White and Blue; Dunne’s ear for American speech is at least in Elmore Leonard’s class, and he provides keenly rendered versions of a grotesque Hollywood funeral service, geriatric man-talk at the Bohemian Grove, the soft cant of show-biz radicals and the hard cant of big-time pols, and the hollowness of graceless losers and haters like Richie Kane. But too many monstrosities crowd together for one fully coherent novel, and one senses too much determination never to get caught in the company of some cheap little illusion. At one point Jack Broderick tries to mourn the dead nun whom Bro’s facile liberal eloquence inspired to try to improve what she called “the real world”:
The real world. She had no idea that the real world inhabited by Bro was the world of Mingo Coolidge [a reactionary Senator] and Dominick Lo-Bianco [a Philadelphia mafioso] and eighty-pound cardinals who knew the numbers of all the secret bank accounts and a sister who committed adultery with the President of the United States, who considered cocoon a synonym for n-nigger. Phyllis Emmett was spectacularly unequipped for this world, which was perhaps why she ended up in the red clay of Chalatenango Province, Cristo Rey, C.A., her Lily of France cotton bikini bottoms inside out and backside front around her ankles.
I doubt that very many people are well equipped for a world like that—but when you can’t bear not to see through everything, what you see behind it all does look pretty much the same. The reader may well ask, are all the conditions of our recent life equally dreadful? May some evils mean more than others? Dunne’s strong and in some respects unanswerable indictment of American experience in our time would, I think, have been all the stronger had it been less sweeping.
August 13, 1987