Philip Hensher

A Spoonful of Elmore

The pain began, quite abruptly, at about eight o’clock last Wednesday night. It ascended in a barely credible way, and at around eleven I phoned the NHS Direct line. Something in what I said to the operator must have struck a chord, as eighteen minutes later an ambulance was there. By eight o’clock the next morning I was in a backless and charmless hospital gown, installed in a bed on the eleventh floor of St Thomas’s Hospital, with a divine view of the London Eye that I was in no position to appreciate. I’m still there as I write, a week later, hooked up to a drip, with oxygen tubes up my nose, enjoying the view a little more.

It’s a time, as everyone will understand, for comfort reading. When the chips are down and one is physically incapable, some readers are drawn to cookery books for consolation, as Barbara Pym was; others to the lives of saints; others to rhyming poetry of the rather warhorse variety (Tennyson is very good for flu, I think). Personally, what I want to help me through real pain is an enclosed fictional world, with its own rules, its own charm, music and flavour; one of those enchanted fictional worlds that live as if behind walls, in a beautiful, perfect garden.

Sometimes this turns out to be E F Benson’s Tilling, with Mapp and Lucia perpetually at war, and a delicious cast of characters flat as playing cards, each with their one line of dialogue. Often it’s P G Wodehouse country, where the rules of each game – Mulliner, Jeeves, Blandings, whatever – are so clear and the music of the prose so mannered. It doesn’t have to be a novel where nobody gets hurt, though. Sherlock Holmes is very consoling, as is Father Brown. The world may be baffling and bizarre, but within ten pages it can be put to rights.

My utter failsafe – utterly comforting, utterly consoling – is slightly different. It’s an enclosed and enchanted fictional world, all right; the scene may be Detroit, LA, Miami or Mississippi, but in reality it is always the same place, a place where people speak with glorious confidence, where the articulate confront the stupid, and the sentences run like this:

What happened, a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year-old super-dude twice convicted felon, was in his Jacuzzi when the phone rang. He yelled for his bodyguard Juicy Mouth to take it.

To me, Elmore Leonard is as comforting in extremity as Pym, and as safe, in the last resort, as Wodehouse. The guys with the best lines are going to come out the other side; the dumb fucks are going to get it in the head or chest; and we are going to hear as much of the word motherfucker as we will of dashed in a Jeeves story. Typing it, I feel a little better already.

It’s thirty years this year since the publication of Leonard’s masterpiece, Get Shorty, and though it was much admired on publication, it seems increasingly like one of the greatest American novels of the last century. There’s no conflict between greatness and consolation. Contemporaries of Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, Simenon and Pym, those creators of closed fictional worlds, often tended to underrate them; their quality emerged over time. Of the literary novels of 1990, what really survives, even thirty years later, except A S Byatt’s Possession and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels? The National Book Critics’ Prize that year was awarded to John Updike’s ho-hum Rabbit at Rest. Can anyone suppose that it is more likely to be read in a hundred years’ time than the magical, effusive inventiveness and unstoppable fantasy of Get Shorty?

Somewhere in the middle of Get Shorty is a rumbustious thriller plot in which a cocaine gang is foiled and toppled by the washed-up movie producer who’s supposed to be laundering their money, along with his new mafioso assistant. But Leonard does everything he can to frustrate the telling of the story. Readers have, from the beginning, often been baffled by the title, even after finishing the novel (Nora Ephron had to ring Leonard’s editor for an explanation – get, if you have your wits about you, turns out to mean not kill but hire). It begins from the most remote point possible, in real, glorious, timewasting fashion. The producer’s mafioso assistant is there because he is chasing a gambling debt from the producer; he had been in Vegas chasing a dry-cleaner who faked his own death and skipped too many protection money payments; he was there because his new boss hates him; his new boss hates him because of an argument over a jacket, ten years before. With that argument the novel begins.

Most of all, Get Shorty is a meditation on and a performance of narratives. Characters comment on the quality of scenes we have just witnessed. A murder can’t be carried out without the killer explaining, as he shoots his gun, that now he is shooting his gun. At the end, the characters are discussing the ending: ‘fucking endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.’ Most audaciously, some of the most dramatic scenes, like that in which Ray Bones is arrested for picking up the drug money at the airport, aren’t narrated at all.

It is all a little like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Conrad’s awesomely infolded Chance, but much more flexible and improvised. It makes one think that we have got a couple of things wrong about what literature can or should be doing behind the low walls we build to enclose it. Get Shorty is in the thriller section, but there is absolutely nothing formulaic about it. In fact, it doesn’t look like any other book ever written.

The presumed limitations of genre make it difficult for us to see that Get Shorty is a much more experimental novel than this year’s performance in second-person present tense, narrated by a dustbin, or a single sentence eight hundred pages long labelled and rewarded as ‘experimental fiction’. Any novelist could learn a lot from it. Remarkably, Leonard demonstrates that those colossal repetitions and layers of commentary, artifice and narrative frustration actually create fictional energy. I find it impossible to imagine a more insanely readable novel than Get Shorty, and it’s worth noting that Conrad, too, had his first huge success with the Byzantine narrative structure of Chance.

In the meantime, I am still in my hospital bed, and things are improving, rather slowly. But Leonard wrote forty-five books, and it’s not just the very best of them that can be read over and over again. Happy fuckin’ thirtieth birthday to you, man.    

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