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Elmore Leonard, Philip K. Dick, and the Weird Justice of Genre

by Michael Ennis



Long flights and waiting rooms will never be the same. Elmore Leonard is my second favorite writer, but I didn't mourn when he died. I counted. The tally of capers and crime sprees has become finite. For years, vacation has been a pretext for devouring Leonard’s novels, seeing how many I could get through while on the road or just ignoring the surroundings of a beautiful beach. Gone are the days of indiscriminate reading fun. I’m on pulp rations.

When I say he is my second favorite writer, the second is sequential, not a ranking. My first favorite author was Philip K. Dick (PKD), and when I fully understood my crazy love for his books, my rational brain went on the fritz. Upon finishing the VALIS trilogy, I had read eighteen of his novels (a number Leonard surpassed last year when I read The Hot Kid). I realized I was through all of PKD’s major works, from Time Out of Joint to Timothy Archer. I had to save the remaining books, or else I might end up in a totally un-estranged world. (I feel funny saying this, but rereading is for suckers.) Now I am hoarding the remaining novels, and that can only lead to disappointment. Especially since PKD jotted down most of them through a haze of amphetamines.

I really shouldn’t begin a remembrance of Elmore Leonard with a discussion of PKD. On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. Leonard writes in a lean prose style and possesses a legendary ear for dialogue. Let’s graciously say that PKD does not. Leonard revisits the same settings (particularly Detroit and Miami), while PKD’s ability to create radically different worlds may be unparalleled.

Critical reception, however, does unite them. Hollywood loves them. Two of Leonard’s works—“3:10 to Yuma” and The Big Bounce—have each been adapted by Hollywood twice (so far). Also, they both occupy an unusual place in their respective fields. They are adamantly genre writers, and are respected on those terms. PKD is about as admired as a sci-fi author can be without becoming Borges, Calvino, or Vonnegut. Likewise, despite accolades from everyone from Stephen King to Martin Amis, and despite being known as the “Dickens of Detroit”—a moniker he rejected as merely alliterative—Leonard has not been accorded the weight of a morally serious realist. His eulogies talk about how he made “art” out of cops and crooks, but the nature of that art remains vague. The characters and vivid dialogue stick with us, but not the politics or social commentary. Calling him the Dickens of Detroit is very much akin to Ursula LeGuin calling PKD “our own homegrown Borges.” It gestures toward literary seriousness, but the comparison somehow misses the point.

It misses the point because their lack of literary seriousness is precisely what makes them so good. They are both uncannily funny. And they use humor to set up their most chilling moments. For example, one of PKD’s most brilliant satirical moments comes in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In the novel, conscripted United Nations workers on Mars deal with the bleakness of the alien environment by taking hallucinogens and playing Perky Pat (a spoof of Barbie). The colonists gather around a play set, drop the Can D, and collectively hallucinate. All the women become Perky Pat and all the men her beaux, as the couple drives in a convertible down the California coast. The satire is obvious and hilarious (I am not doing it justice). But the joke of the fictional drug—with its savaging of consumer culture and our celebrity worship—takes a sublime turn when it’s revealed to be the provenance of a (possibly) divine alien. The novel remains ambiguous: the alien may be invading, taking over humanity through the drug. Or, it may be providing the drug as a way of communing with us. The last scenes of the novel are terrifying and beautiful, all the more so because of the way PKD established the absurd humor of Perky Pat.

It’s a rich allegory, but because PKD grounds it in the initial humor it doesn’t read that way. The difference between a genre writer like PKD and more literary ones (even ones that carry on similar narrative hijinks) is that there’s almost a sleight of hand happening in the former. You’re too busy laughing, too caught up in the formula, to fully notice the meanings that accrue. With Calvino or Borges, we’re aware from the beginning that literary artifice is going on. Not that I don’t love it, I just love PKD more.

Leonard’s shifts from humor to terror are more consistently tied to his antagonists. For example, in Stick two of the bad guys fret over beloved hats. Chucky—the paranoid, pill-popping kingpin—wears different hats when conducting business on the phone. A yacht captain’s cap to express a devil-may-care sensibility, a hardhat to dig in his heals. Chucky repeatedly attempts to lure his rival’s good-old-boy muscle, Moke, to work for him as a double agent. Moke obsesses over his own forty-dollar straw cowboy hat, and meticulously stuffs the crown with Kleenex to keep the shape just right. When Stick (the protagonist) steps on the straw hat as an act of defiant intimidation (for reasons that would take several more paragraphs to explain), it serves as a catalyst for an ultimate confrontation between Moke and Chucky, a confrontation witnessed by Stick, an ex-con, and his new love interest Kyle, a financial advisor. Moke tortures Chucky by slowly tossing his pills over the balcony rail. Traumatized by the torture and the loss of his drugs, Chucky adjourns to another room to finally remove his hat and shoot himself in the head. The scene is tense and dramatic precisely because our emotions are tied to our complicity. We’ve laughed at these foibles, only to have missed the danger beneath the surface. Neuroses are funny until they’re not.

That revelation goes hand in hand with the realization that Leonard is humanizing these social outcasts, even as they serve as devices for the suspense. The worlds of the novels are utterly rejected by the mainstream. When Chucky kills himself, Stick turns to Kyle and says, “It’s time for us to go.” Kyle leaves him for the way he phrases it. Stick’s cognitive map of the world includes an appropriate departure time for witnessing a murder-suicide, and that knowledge terrifies and repulses Kyle. But it doesn’t terrify Leonard, who relishes characters who know something about the world the rest of us don’t.

What’s interesting, and unusual, is how this kind of knowledge resists categorization. Sure, Leonard makes art out of the lives of crooks and low-lifes, but the heroes of the novels—the ones who know things and allow us to know things too, if only vicariously—come from all walks of life, all sides of the law. In an intense exchange between Karen Sisco, a U.S. Marshall, and Jack Foley, her quarry who’s a nice guy but a compulsive bank robber, the two try to explain their mutual attraction, which began after Jack took Karen hostage during his prison break. Karen asks during a “time-out” from her pursuit:

“Well, does it make sense to you?”

He said, “It doesn’t have to, it’s something that happens. It’s like seeing a person you never saw before—you could be passing on the street—and you look at each other...”

Karen was nodding. “You make eye contact without meaning to.”

“And for a few moments,” Foley said, “there’s a kind of recognition. You look at each other and you know something.”

“That no one else knows,” Karen said. “You see it in their eyes.” 

“And the next moment the person’s gone,” Foley said, “and it’s too late to do anything about it, but you remember it because it was right there and you let it go, and you think, What if I had stopped and said something? It might happen only a few times in your life.”

“Or once,” Karen said. “Why don’t we get out of here.”

“Where do you want to go?” 

This moment of recognition, the time-out, ends with a bullet. Karen’s and Jack’s respective senses of duty—their loyalty to the law and thieving—get the better of them. If Leonard abides by a formula, it’s only because his characters follow their own codes.

I suppose it’s a matter of opinion whether or not this amorphous, formulaic sense of alienation resonates more strongly than one that follows identifiable political contours. Leonard rarely wrote overtly about politics, but when he does these themes follow him. In 1987’s Bandits, for example, he takes on the Contras and Nicaraguan politics. The characters in the novel repeatedly try to make sense of the intrigue that follows a Contra leader’s fundraising trip to New Orleans. A lesser novelist might have condescended to the career jewel thieves who frequently wonder, “Are we sure we’re on the right side?” The novel cuts through the politics unexpectedly, when the driver for the Contra leader—a Miskito named Franklin—becomes a more definitive agent in the plot. Whatever else may be unclear, the Miskito have been wronged by both sides of the conflict, and the novel ultimately sympathizes with the double-exile Franklin. It’s a rare moment of politics, but it clarifies the political underpinnings of Leonard’s novels. In both the Westerns and the crime novels set in the “global South” of Miami and New Orleans, America is expansive.

The estrangement of America figures prominently in PKD’s work. Of course, world-building figures prominently in how he does this, and the landscapes of post-apocalyptic California and alien planets work similarly to the global city and the frontier in Leonard’s work. More significantly, PKD frequently assembles bands of characters that are misfits, alienated, and dissatisfied with the offerings of the mainstream. Whether a multi-species team assembled to restore a sunken alien cathedral, plumbers on Mars, members of a commune in post-nuclear San Marino, or the inmates on an insane asylum moon, PKD’s characters always struggle against seemingly insuperable odds. And in most cases, they enjoy a formulaic (Fredric Jameson calls it "obligatory") happy ending, one that countermands the dark satire and gallows humor of much of his work. It’s kind of weird justice.

Weird justice informs Elmore Leonard’s writing too, as his characters struggle to understand multiple codes, and the action of his novels often revolves around those codes being upset, not by criminals, but by actors in an alternate America not playing by those unwritten rules. It’s formulaic, but the formula enables something: a utopian impulse that’s often suppressed in more serious contemporary fiction.

And this returns us to the question of my two favorite writers’ liminal status between genre and literature. The places in the novels are not utopian, but they enable utopian formulas. This undermines the aesthetics—formulaic fiction isn’t worthy! But the novels train us to read them for the confrontations between code and desire, for the sublime shifts from humor to terror, and teach us that the happy endings tinged with defeat all serve a larger purpose.

The formulas redeem outcasts.

It’s a weird justice, a weird hope.



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