Saturday, June 29, 2019

Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is a canonical writer for me. He’s so prolific that it is hard to say which of his books I like best. I’ve read 41 of them, the only writer by whom I’ve hit that mark. If I had to choose today, I’d probably say Cuba Libre, City Primeval, Killshot, The Switch and this one. But that could change as I reread. I haven’t read Glitz in a decade and it was my favorite of his at one point. I probably could have included Riding the Rap, The Hot Kid and half a dozen more if I were writing this on a different day. In a recent conversation about Phillip K. Dick, a friend brought up the idea of the “style of no style,” that is a book that rests on its ideas, character and plot and considerations of writing style are at best secondary. Leonard takes the style of no style and makes it an art. He cuts out all excess words. I’ve often described Leonard to people as Hemingway with a sense of humor (not an original observation, but an apt one). He couldn’t have written Pale Fire, say, or Peace, but Nabokov and Wolfe couldn’t have written Gold Coast.

His books are generally character and dialog driven. There’s something that several characters want, and the plot is generally confined to what would these people do to get it. The dialog is stylized, and the most enjoyable this side of the Coens. You wish everyone in life talked as cleverly as his characters.

1980 was a great literary year. Strong work by my three favorite writers: Shadow of the Torturer (first volume of Book of the New Sun) and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories by Gene Wolfe and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (my favorite of hers). It also included two of Leonard's  best novels, this one and City Primeval. If that weren’t enough there was Godric by Frederick Buechner (which I used to read every year), A Confederacy of Dunces (one of the great comic novels), Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams. Finally, The Second Coming by Walker Percy and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (both of which I've liked in the past, though I'm not sure that I do any more). That’s a fine pile of novels, and Gold Coast is near the top of the heap.

A vindictive mob midlevel mob boss, Frank DiCilia, leaves his wife, Karen, with incredible strictures in his will. She caught him cheating a year or so before he died and said that she’d do the same if he kept it up. As retaliation she gets the proceeds of a trust fund on a monthly basis, but she has to live in the house they shared in Florida, and she cannot remarry or have a relationship with any other man. Several people are attempting to bilk her out of her money or to save her. There are three other major players in the book. Calvin Macguire, who beats an armed robbery rap in Detroit and relocates to Florida to work at a Seaworld like park. He meets Karen, falls for her and wants to save her. Ed Gross is her husband’s mob lawyer who is conflicted about following through on the terms of the will, but is enforcing it for now. There’s Roland Crowe, distant cousin to Dewey and Darryl from the show Justified, who is an all around overconfident psychopath who wants both Karen and her trust fund. He’s been tasked with scaring off any of Karen’s potential suitors.

It all unravels in Leonard's inimitable style. It is Karen’s book, and she wins in the end. The way the book gets there is the fun part. In his later work, he leaned into humor more, and he’s great at that. This is funny at times, but is closer to straight noir. I’ve now read it three times, and expect to again at some point.

Canon Worthy

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