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November 22, 2017

Elmore Leonard, Bad Guys

On this day in 1925 Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans. Leonard spent most of his first decade in the South, moving from city to city as his father scouted dealership sites for GM. By the time he was ten, Leonard's family had settled in Detroit, and his David Copperfield-Pip years -- a review in 1984 labeled Leonard the "Dickens of Detroit" and this has stuck -- were spent in an All-American way: quarterback of the football team, pitcher for the baseball team, a casual approach to school, and a career path begun in the advertising department of Chevrolet. Leonard's advertising niche was trucks -- he says he had great difficulty with convertibles -- and in one of his rejected ads, an endorsement sent in by one trucker, we perhaps see the future novelist: "You don't wear that sonofabitch out, you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.

Leonard first applied his aptitude for writing to Westerns, having the idea that the genre was achievable and well paying. The collapse of this market and his success in it -- most notably, Hombre (1961) -- brought him to crime-writing and fame, not only of the best-seller and Newsweek-cover variety but the sort that comes from higher up the literary criticism ladder. This praise of Leonard's "literary genius" is from Martin Amis in an essay in his recent anthology, The War Against Cliché:
    He understands the postmodern world -- the world of wised-up rabble and zero authenticity. His characters are equipped not with obligingly suggestive childhoods or case histories, but with a cranial jukebox of situation comedies and talk shows and advertising jingles, their dreams and dreads all mediated and secondhand. They are not lost souls or dead souls. Terrible and pitiable (and often downright endearing), they are simply junk souls: quarter pounders, with cheese.
In a recent interview with Amis, Leonard wanted no part of such pronouncements. When asked, "What is your view about crime in America?" Leonard replied:
    I don't have a view about crime in America. There isn't anything I can say that would be interesting at all. When I'm fashioning my bad guys, though (and sometimes a good guy has had a criminal past and then he can go either way; to me, he's the best kind of character to have), I don't think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they're going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank. Because that's the way they are....

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