I want to talk about Elmore Leonard as a practitioner at that high altar of modern literature, metafiction, but first…
In Leonard’s 1999 novel Be Cool, Chili Palmer is explaining some insights he’s gathered about his new career in the music industry:
The label, the manager and the lawyer are the tree and its branches. They nourish the fruit, the fruit being the artist. The tree has to be healthy to bear good fruit, or else the fruit falls to the ground and rots.
Elaine Levin, a movie studio executive (and, eventually, Chili’s love interest), asks, “Why does that sound familiar?”
There are a great many people who would say: Of course, that’s familiar. It echoes the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, verses 17-19, which begin: “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit,” as well as a parable in the 13th chapter of that gospel which starts: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil….”
But that’s not Chili’s answer.
He says, “Peter Sellers, in Being There.”
“Yeah,” says Elaine, “the musings of an idiot…”
As if to brag
Elmore Leonard writes funny books.
He introduced Chili Palmer, a loan shark from Miami, in his 1990 book Get Shorty. In a roundabout way, Chili chases a deadbeat dentist to Los Angeles and then stumbles into the movie-making scene by talking up his idea of making a movie about a Chili-like character pursuing a deadbeat dentist to Los Angeles.
This funny book was made into a movie in 1995 with the same title. John Travolta played Chili.
Be Cool is a sequel to Get Shorty, and it is as if Leonard said himself that he would break all the rules about sequels, but not by trying to avoid over-copying his first story.
No, it seems that Leonard’s idea was to make Be Cool as much like Get Shorty as possible, as if to brag: I can make a novel that works even if I am wearing the earlier book like a straitjacket.
So both have a character who is pushing the idea of a movie being made about himself. Both have characters who die from falls from great heights. Both involve Chili getting into a new field of entertainment. Both involve attractive middle-aged women who end up in bed with the attractive and middle-aged Chili. And both involve men sitting in a dark house waiting to surprise a movie-maker.
Chili’s stare-down look (“Look at me”) from Get Shorty is repeated in Be Cool but by other characters who can’t pull it off very well. There are bad guys who turn into good guys in helping Chili avoid death at the hands of the really bad guys. And entertainment stars who are prima donnas.
Be Cool works so well and is so funny — don’t worry; I’ll get to that metafiction thing — because it’s filled with deliciously odd characters, scenes and dialogue, such as that exchange about the tree and its fruit.
And then there’s Joe Loop, an ancient Mafia hitman. Raji, an African-American music hustler, is hiring Joe to eliminate Chili.
Raji was careful with Joe Loop, never got too close, saw him as some kind of creature you threw peanuts to.
They meet in a diner, and Raji is disgusted by the mobster.
They were facing each other in a booth, Raji with this fat little sixty-year-old guinea, round shoulders, no neck on him you could detect, the man wearing glasses all smudged with his fingerprints, a safety pin holding the temple on one side to the frame, a musty-looking suit on but no tie…Raji tried not to look directly at him; this was an ugly man with an ugly disposition.
Later, when Joe is picking up his advance money, Raji shows him the baseball bat that he and his giant gay Samoan-African American bodyguard who wants to be in pictures have gotten. Now, it’s Joe’s turn to be disgusted — the bat is red, and it’s metal.
This is aluminum, you dumb fuck…You want a wood bat, the famous Louisville Slugger, not this piece of shit…Hit a hardball with it, you don’t hear that solid crack of the bat, you hear a ping, for Christ sake. What kind of sound is that, a fuckin ping?
Eventually, the red aluminum bat is used, and not in a baseball game.
“Jumping off the cliff”
Be Cool is a novel in which a scene opens with Tiffany, the radio company secretary with a Mohawk, arrives “with a porcelain urn resting on a flat pizza box: Tommy’s ashes and an extra-large Primo’s Special with anchovies.”
And which includes Speedy, a drummer with only two drums in his set, who “looked for things that would piss him off so he could pick a fight. Like being called a ‘beaner’…”
And which includes a black police detective who, at home in bed with his wife, suggests sex by saying, “I wouldn’t mind jumping off the cliff. How about you?”
Elaine is more direct with Chili.
“Let’s take our clothes off,” she says.
Okay, now for the metafiction stuff.
Metafiction is an approach to story-telling in which the story-teller and the framework of the story-telling is in full view. Like in a movie when, for a moment, a character turns away from the other characters and talks directly to the audience. Or like I’ve done in this review by mentioning a few times that I’m going to talk about metafiction.
Get Shorty was an example of that in several ways. Elmore Leonard is writing a novel about a guy who is trying to come up with a story that can be made into a movie. Which, of course, is what Leonard was trying to do.
He wants the novel to sell, of course, but he also has the possibility of a movie adaptation in the future. And, sure enough, his story about Chili thinking up the scenes and characters of a movie that, by the end of the book, gets made parallels Leonard’s own story as a writer whose novel gets made into a film.
Then, he writes Be Cool with the same idea in mind. Chili is trying again to come up with the scenes and characters of a movie, and so is Leonard. And, sure enough, the movie (same name) is made in 2005.
Starring John Travolta.
“This treatment you’re living”
It goes deeper.
What Chili says about his process in coming up with enough stuff to make a movie is what Leonard is doing. So, for example, Chili says:
I don’t think of a plot and then put character in it. I start with different characters and see where they take me.
That’s what Leonard does. His novels, especially once he was established as a writer whose books sold well and whose books could be turned into money-making movies, have plots that are pretty slack.
His books tend to stumble along like the characters who inhabit them. They’re not fitting some structure. They have goals they’re moving toward, but often they’re not exactly sure how to get to them — or even all that sure what those goals will look like in detail if achieved.
Throughout Be Cool, Chili is telling Elaine about the movie that is taking shape in his head, based on events and people in his life, such as that black police detective.
“So he’s in this treatment you’re living.”
“Treatment — I think we could go right to script, start it, anyway. Yeah, Darryl’s in it, definitely.”
And, in the end, Chili doesn’t have to write anything.
“What we’ve got, Elaine, is the material, the characters, the business, different situations, some action…Look, we got all the material we need. Why don’t we give it to the screenwriter? Instead of us fuckin up the story, let Scooter do it.”
A delightfully lively mess
That’s essentially what Leonard’s novel is, this amalgam of stuff. When the story became a movie, the screenwriter took all this stuff and made a story, one that was similar to the novel but far from faithful. Elaine disappeared. Raji became a white guy….
The reader is handed this delightfully lively mess and goes along for the ride.
That’s what Leonard has done.
Patrick T. Reardon