Book review: “Pronto” by Elmore Leonard

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Book review: “Pronto” by Elmore Leonard

There’s no indication in Elmore Leonard’s 1993 crime novel Pronto what the title is supposed to mean.

In American English, “pronto” is an adverb, meaning “quickly.” It comes from Spanish in which the word means “quick.”

However, Leonard’s novel is peopled with members and associates of the Italian crime mob in Miami as well as the lawmen who try to stop their scheming and skullduggery. A goodly portion of the story takes place in Italy, both in flashbacks to World War II and in present-day shenanigans.

So maybe it has to do with the Italian word “pronto” which means “ready.”

Which doesn’t immediately bring to mind any person or action in the story, except maybe Raylan Givens, a Deputy U.S. Marshal and former miner in Kentucky.

He’s the center of this typically loose-limbed Leonard novel in the sense of the person who makes things happen. (And he’s the central character in two later books — Riding the Rap (1993) and Leonard’s final novel Raylan (2012).)

And, in Pronto, Raylan does seem to be ready when he needs to be.

Still, it’s kind of a stretch since the word “pronto” and its meaning “ready” don’t appear anywhere in the book.

 

Loose and cool

One of Pronto’s characters, Harry Arno, seems anxious, pretty much, and with good reason since, coming out to a parking lot, he found a guy with a shotgun there preparing to kill him. But 66-year-old Harry isn’t so anxious that he’s unable to draw his own gun and take the guy out with a single shot.

Aside from Harry, though, everyone else in Pronto seems loose and cool despite being in a trade in which, well, sudden violence and death is a cost of doing business. For instance, as Raylan is being questioned by a mobster and not giving the answer he wants, the mobster takes out his gun and shoots the guy who is standing next to Raylan.

Raylan doesn’t seem to even blink.

 

“If You See Me Getting Smaller…”

As is usual for many Leonard novels, the plot is secondary to the inner lives and backstories of the characters. Don’t look for Pronto or any of his other books to be a page-turner — not that they’re slow. It’s just that the fun of Leonard’s writing is in the conversations that his people have with each other and with themselves.

An example:

Raylan is driving in Italy knowing that mobsters will be searching for him. Another novelist might deal with this in quick, tense sentences, the equivalent of a rapid-fire edit in a movie. Leonard, though, gets into what Raylan’s thinking, and it’s not filled with fear and dread.

Now he saw the guy with a hand radio, speaking into it, telling somebody about the blue Fiat he’d just seen whiz by, the guy getting smaller and smaller in the mirror. It reminded Raylan of an old Waylon Jennings number, “When You See Me Getting Smaller.” One of his favorites when he was still home in Kentucky. On the same record as “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille,” the one he thought of right after Winona told him she was getting a divorce and he was alone in Miami Beach without his family. Without his boys anyway, the real estate guy could have Winona. He thought of Waylon and wondered if there was such a thing as Italian country music. He remembered reading somewhere that Clint Black was half Italian, his mother being full-blooded.

Raylan kept glancing at his mirror, but nothing seemed to be coming after him.

 

Ezra Pound

In the worlds of Leonard’s many novels, there’s always time to remember a Waylon Jennings tune and wonder about Italian country music.

And there are always characters such as the Zip, a mobster who wants to kill Harry and take over his betting operation, and Nicky Testa, an over-muscled, weak-willed bodyguard for Jimmy Cap, the local mob boss. And, in a peripheral way, Ezra Pound. Not too many American crime novels contain, as Pronto does, quotes from Pound’s Cantos.

And, as interestingly human as these characters are with their quirks, there is always the ever-present possibility of violence and death.

The Lip, Nicky and Raylan, among them, are involved in shootings in which at least four people end up dead.

There’s something deep in all that whimsy and comedy — about death amid the squirrelliness of life.

Something Pound might’ve written about.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

12.21.17

 

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