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Book review: “Stick” by Elmore Leonard

Nestor and Stick are talking about dreams.

For most people, Nestor Soto is a scary dude — a Paraguay-born, Cuba-raised, Miami drug lord, also called El Chaco, a free-basing, voodoo-worshipping stone face whose similarly creepy father-in-law is his enforcer.

Stick, aka Ernest Stickley Jr., a 42-year-old Oklahoman, just out of prison for armed robbery, is smart enough to know that Nestor is frightening.  But he also knows or has intuited that the safest thing for him to do is to go into this particular lion’s den and explain that he’s not a threat to tell police about Nestor’s involvement in the murder of one of Stick’s friends. 

Nestor takes a liking to Stick’s chutzpah and his reasoning, and the two end up talking about their dreams.  Elmore Leonard writes in his 1983 novel Stick:

Nestor dreamed of a jaguar that had walked down the deserted main street of Filadelfia, the town where he was born in the Chaco region of Paraguay.  The street was deserted because of the jaguar, the people watching the wild animal from windows and from doors that were open a few inches.  This jaguar was very likely the one that had killed several cows, a goat or two and an old horse; but no one threatened the life of the jaguar because of the wonder of seeing it in the street, in civilization….

He told [the dream] to Stick on the backyard patio of the walled home in South Miami, the big revolvers lying on the stone table between them, the grass illuminated like a polo field, for security, the santeria shrine against the cement wall, off in a corner, an altar to African gods that resembled an outdoor barbeque.

“Nothing to hide”

Stick shakes his head with wonder and envy:

“I wish I had a dream like that.  I fall down steep, narrow stairs.”

“What does it mean to you?”

“It means I’m not getting anywhere fast…Or sometimes I see myself in a dream.  I’m on a busy street or I’m in church…”

“Yes?”

“And I don’t have any clothes on.  I’m naked.”

“It means you have nothing to hide.”

Nestor likes that.  He thinks it means Stick is being honest and straight with him.  And he is.

Attractive Everyman

Many Elmore Leonard novels feature characters with rather complex moralities.  Most of his good guys are a little bad, and most of his bad guys display some human values beyond their thuggery or violence or corruption.

In Stick, though, just about everyone is more than a little bad. 

Nestor, for all his cuddly talk about dreams, is a sociopathic killer. Kyle McLaren, the hot-shot woman who is an investment counselor to key characters in the book, takes on one of Nestor’s drug-dealing associates as a client — but she stops short of engaging in fraud.

Stick, a nonchalant Everyman, attractive in his shambling way of maneuvering through life, a guy who is so modestly attractive that he sleeps with three woman….one, two, three….in a few hours one night (although, also attractively, isn’t quite up to the task in the final go) — this attractive Everyman has killed four people.  And he nearly strangled a fifth to death in the front seat of a van.

What would Stick do?

Stick, a far from serious novel, takes its characters seriously.  Each has a backstory that makes him or her something other than a stick figure moving through a plot.  If, in this case, they’re all rather dirty, well, they’re still people.

I don’t know how Leonard went about writing his novels or went about writing this novel.

I would not be surprised if he decided on the character of Stick — a guy who could be violent but didn’t need to be violent, a guy who wasn’t completely sure of himself but who had decided that, in life, it’s better to approach problems head-on rather than skulk around, a guy who wanted to rely on himself but knew his limits — and then started asking questions such as:  What would Stick do if this happened?  What would he do if that happened?

After all that imagining, Leonard had a novel. 

And it’s a fun novel. 

Its pages crackle with life from its lively characters.  And those pages are filled with surprises — not plot twists, but actions that seem, at first, odd but quickly turn out to fit not only the character but also the situation.

And takes extra time

Such as when Nestor’s father-in-law and Moke, a hired gun, show up at the estate where Stick works with the clear intention of killing him.

Stick spots them approaching his cottage across the wide spaces of the estate, so he and Kyle duck out the back and circle around behind the killers.  Not finding Stick in the cottage, the two men head to the yacht docked on the pier, and, as soon as they’re out of sight, Stick tells Kyle to wait in the trees and walks over to their van.

And steals it.

And takes extra time to run over Moke cowboy hat with the van, making it the second of Moke’s cowboy hats that he had destroyed.

And, only then, does Stick pick up Kyle, and they make their escape.

On the surface, this doesn’t make sense, but it’s Stick’s way of confronting this danger without actually confronting it, at least immediately.

Ultimately, the theft and some other plot turns, such as the near strangulation of Moke later in the van, lead to Stick’s decision to go to Nestor, and they end up sharing their dreams.

It’s that kind of novel.

Patrick T. Reardon

5.27.19

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