As Elmore Leonard showed in his early novels and short stories, he could write a straight-ahead tale with a tight plot that unfolded step-by-step-by-step to a climax.
In most of his later work, though, Leonard employed a much different approach. What there is of a plot, even if it involves danger and violence, isn’t very pressing. It is simply a flat stage on which his characters move. It is his characters who have his interest — and that of his readers.
Get Shorty is one of these later books, published in 1990. Chili Palmer is a Miami loan shark who’s getting out of the business. Well, he’s being chased out by Ray “Bones” Barboni, a mobster he once cold-cocked and who’s had it in for Chili ever since.
Anyway, Chili ends up in Hollywood. He hooks up with longtime schlock film producer Harry Zimm who, for the first time in his life, has a high-concept project to push. Also moving in and out of the story are Karen Flores, a former starlet famous for her full-throated scream in various Zimm movies; rich wastrel Ronnie Wingate and his savvy partner in a limousine-drug operation, Bo Catlett; and three-time Academy Award-winner Martin Weir (who happens to be short).
There is a murder that occurs in the course of the book. Don’t worry. It’s no one interesting, just someone who has it coming. Oh, and there’s another death, but that, too, is something that’s well-deserved. And it comes as a nice plot twist. Although, as I’ve said, the plot isn’t all that important.
The mystery of life
Get Shorty is a story in which, in the midst of sex, Karen wonders if Chili would make a good actor. This comes up several times. Earlier, she stands in the doorway watching Chili sitting at a table.
Chili Palmer in his pinstripe suit, tough guy from Miami. Not a movie tough guy, a real one. She kept watching him with her camera eye wondering if, real or not, he could be acting. If he was, he was awfully good.
This novel isn’t about action. It’s about the look of things. The feel of things. And about moving through the almost always uncontrollable mystery of life.
Sort of like what we all are doing every day.
In a meeting with Chili, Weir says he likes the high-concept movie idea that Zimm is pushing:
“I like the character, the guy, he has possibilities. But the way the plot develops it turns into a B movie by the time you’re into the second act. Take a look at [Weir’s highly touted] The Cyclone again, the way a visual fabric is maintained even while the metaphor plays on different levels, with the priest, with the mother…so you never lose sight of the picture’s thematic intent.”
During my long career at the Chicago Tribune, I had an editor who looked at a long story that I’d written and said simply, “It needs more pastels.”
Well, maybe he had a point, but that was one pompous way of saying it.
That’s why Weir’s “visual fabric” is likely to elicit guffaws or at least smiles from most readers.
“Might just make it”
As is Chili’s comment later in a meeting with Karen and a studio executive about Weir’s ideas for the film:
“I think he was talking mostly about the visual fabric of the movie and the them, what you’re doing here, so it doesn’t start to look like something else.”
What does any of that mean?
It doesn’t matter. The point is that Chili is working to impress the exec with his arty vision of the film — and, even more important, that he’s already talked with Weir about the project.
After the meeting, Karen goes out to the car, and, just before getting in, says:
“The visual fabric of the theme? You might just make it, Chili.”
It’s fun to spend some time with Chili and his friends (and enemies). Their lives aren’t anything like ours.
Except, of course, in many ways, they are.
Patrick T. Reardon