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Monday, September 23, 2013

Pronto by Elmore Leonard

[This is our book group pick for October. We usually meet on the fourth Tuesday of the month at the Belmont Library. Don't read this review, read the book, and join us.]

William Morrow, 400 pages, $14.99 (c1993)

Pronto should also be known as "Gasp! Elmore Leonard leaves Detroit and Miami." Actually, Leonard has often left those cities behind, but he has used them as his settings for some of his most famous crime novels, filled with wise guys, dumb guys, good bad guys, bad good guys, and quirkiness up the yinyang.

Italians answer their phone calls with "Pronto," meaning I'm ready to listen. In the U.S., we use it to mean quickly, derived apparently from the Latin for prompt. The thing about Leonard is that he is the master of using the minimum amount of language with the optimum of meaning. Leonard probably would have summarized those last two sentences as: Raylan Givens is pronto.

There are many fans of the television series "Justified," centered on Raylan Givens, who have never read an Elmore Leonard book. More's the pity. But it's understandable that the character of U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens has warranted such fan devotion.

As created by Leonard, first in his short story, "Fire in the Hole," and then in the full-length novel Pronto, Raylan is a laconic, sincere, self-aware, mostly uncomplicated man, who came out of the mines of Harlan County, Kentucky, but never truly left that culture behind. Leonard says he "looks like a farmer …. The weathered, rawbone type."

In contrast, Harry Arno is a Miami bookie. His mob boss has caught him skimming. Everybody skims, says Harry, but Jimmy Caps thinks Harry has gone overboard. Harry soon learns that he has been set up by the Feds, so they can get their hooks into Jimmy.

Harry is 66 years old, has a much younger, ex-stripper girlfriend, Joyce, and is capable of ignoring the obvious. When the heat is turned on, he passes on being a scapegoat and skedaddles, without Joyce, to a little town in Italy. Harry has slipped away on Raylan's watch -- for the second time -- and Raylan needs to get him back but, amazingly, not with vengeance or anger in mind. Raylan is descended from a slightly different line than many of the private eyes, cops, and ex- and current military men that fill crime novels these days.

Years ago, during World War II, Harry claims to have seen the poet Ezra Pound imprisoned in Italy for being a traitor. He is obsessed with Pound's life in that little town, especially with how Pound hid himself with both his wife and his mistress at his mistress's villa. Pound was a genius, Harry proclaims. You can't even understand his poetry, Joyce retorts. Harry ignores her. Harry ignores most of what he doesn't want to admit or confess to. And that in a nutshell is what has gotten Harry into trouble, trouble that drags in Raylan, Joyce, ex-pat Robert Gee, and mobsters like the ambitious Zip and muscleheaded Nicky Testa.

Even if Pronto weren't clever and a great showcase for Raylan Givens's quiet cool, it would be a showcase for the prodigious writing talent of one of America's greatest writers. A different world lies within each page. With just a few words, Leonard is able to create both comedic and dramatic tension. He can end a paragraph far from its prosaic beginning.

Here's Raylan talking about Harry's first disappearance: "'We're in the Atlanta airport. I'm eating an ice cream cone, he says he's going to the men's and will be right back. The next time I saw him was yesterday, six years later.' Harry grinned. Raylan didn't."

Leonard's good with peripheral story material. Here's a tailor talking to the the Zip: "'I made a suit for Meyer Lansky one time, way back. I was down on Collins then in the McFadden-Deauville. Made him a beautiful suit of clothes and he stiffed me. You believe it? With all his dough?'"

Dialogue is his strong suit. Here's Robert Gee when he first met Harry in Italy: "'You could be Italian, yeah, but not from around here the way you're dressed. Well, you could come from Milan, I guess, close by. But to look all the way Italian, man, you got to have the suit with the pointy shoulders and the pointy shoes with the little thin soles.'"

There's a staccato rhythm to Leonard's writing that seems natural after a while. He strays off-point a lot, but that's his charm.


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