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Book review: “The Moonshine War” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard writes amiable novels that tend to meander along until one of his dopey characters — all of his characters are, like humans, pretty dopey — breaks into violence that is shocking because of its casualness.

That happens in The Moonshine War when 25-year-old gunman Dual Meaders — in addition to being dopey, most of Leonard’s characters have wonderfully odd names — anyway, Dual Meaders takes a cotton to a city dude’s  suit.

It’s lunchtime at a café in rural Kentucky, and Dual is eating with his employer Dr. Emmett Taulbee and Taulbee’s female companion Miley Mitchell.

At another table in the otherwise empty restaurant is a couple,

both of them in their mid- or late-twenties with city written all over them.  They were trying to appear at ease, but the [waitress] could tell they were self-conscious…

The new gabardine suit

Dual keeps eying the man’s obviously new gabardine suit and, finally, gets up, goes over to their table and offers to buy it from him — not another of his suits, this one, right here, now.

“What am I supposed to do, take it off right here and give it to you?”

“That’s right.”

The young city man is flustered and says he can’t just take it off right here at this table.  Besides, he doesn’t want to sell it.

“Mister, do you believe I care what you want? Take off the suit yourself so I won’t have to do it and maybe tear it.”

“Too calm”

The man and woman decide to leave the café.

Dual Meaders let the young man push his chair back and stand up before he reached inside his coat and came out with a .38 revolver.  The gun looked heavy in Dual’s slender hand; his wrist bent with the weight of it so that the barrel pointed low on the young man.

“I’ll put a hole in your suit if you don’t start taking it off.”

The young man looked at the gun and looked at Dual.

The fellow seemed calm, even patient, but that was it, he was too calm: his face was like a dead man’s face with the eyes open, a skeleton man who was too small to wear the suit in the first place.

And, Dual says, he wants the young man’s shoes and socks and underwear.

Once the young man has stripped, Dual decides he’d like the young woman’s dress, too.  And shoes and underwear.  And, soon, she’s bare naked, too.

A chaotic place

Dual, later on in the novel, gets two barrels of a shotgun in the chest, and his boss and a host of the boss’s other thugs get their comeuppance as well.

But it’s that scene in the café that sticks for me.

The world — at least, the world as Leonard portrays it — is a chaotic place in which evil lurks around any corner.

Sheer confusedness

The Moonshine War, set during Prohibition, has to do with 150 cases of eight-year-old whiskey buried somewhere on the property of Son Martin — another great name — and the efforts of a great many people, including Dual Meaders and Dr. Everett Taulbee to get their hands on them.

As usual, this Elmore Leonard novel is satisfyingly arch and loose-jointed and entertaining. It’ll renew your faith in the sheer confusedness of human beings — and the violence that is just under the surface of some (many?).

No one in The Moonshine War is simon pure.  It’s a book that reads like life.

Patrick T. Reardon


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