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Nexus Graphica
by Gary Phillips

  In an unusual line-up of the cosmos, we now have our second straight guest-written column here at Nexus Graphica. While Rick Klaw is busy with a book launch, I'm busy with other life stuff -- a sad farewell, and a 'change of venue' as they say in showbiz.

So stepping up to the plate this month is L.A.-based crime writer extraordinaire Gary Phillips, who slings the noir in both prose and comics form.

Here he has a contemplation on the passing of the late, great Elmore Leonard. I trust you will enjoy it as thoroughly as Rick and I did. See you when autumn rolls around.
—Mark London Williams

Previous Nexus Graphica Columns


 

The Big Bounce Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard sure could write. Far as I know, he had no interest in comics, but given his adeptness at sparse dialogue and colluding the interests of his oddball characters, his influences in redefining the crime novel can certainly can be seen in the likes of such recent fare as Thief of Thieves. the Sweets mini-series to even Uncanny.

I had the pleasure of meeting him only once, briefly, but his books and short stories had influenced me before and since then. "Dutch" Leonard talked about being influenced by Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, and that was certainly evident in the seemingly simple way he wrote, letting his characters define themselves for you by their actions and terse words. He'd begun selling western short stories in the last days of the pulps in the early 50s while working his day job as a "Mad Man" in Detroit on the Chevrolet account. He cranked out tales like "Apache Medicine," "Calvary Boots," and the classic "Three-Ten to Yuma."

Supposedly, he's reputed to have said that when the market dried up for westerns he switched over to writing crime novels. But if you look at the chronology of his books, you'll see that's not quite the case. After publishing Hombre, a western, he published The Big Bounce, a book that was initially turned down by 84 publishers over a period of three years. In fact the film version with Ryan O'Neal (as Jack Ryan who would also be in Unknown Man #89) came out several months before the novel came out as an 80 Fawcett paperback original in 1969.

He followed that novel with the Depression-era Moonshine War then back to westerns, Valdez is Coming and Forty Lashes Less One -- his only novel with a black main character set in 1910. From there he goes forward again with Mr. Majestyk, a novelization, another paperback original, he did based on his original screenplay. The plot was a modern dress western and quintessential Leonard.

Vince Majestyk, a Vietnam vet, needs to bring in his crop of watermelons on his small farm. Second rate thugs try to muscle in on his farm with a protection racket. Majestyk runs them off and hires migrant Mexican labor and together with the firebrand female union leader, they fight off the bad guys. Perfect. Like a lot of his books, the stakes are small, personal. There's no nuclear device being smuggled onto the farm to blow up Colorado or daughter of the president on the run from a Soviet hit squad hiding on the farm. Just a guy trying to get his crop in on time. Simple, direct, effective. Appropriately, his last published novel was Raylan, featuring his modern-day, cowboy hat-wearing U.S. marshal Raylan Givens, set in and around Harlan County, Kentucky, with the bad guys mostly women in the book.

  "He didn't have to stay here. He didn't have to be a town constable. He didn't have to work for the stage company. He didn't have to listen to Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Malson and smile when they said those things. He didn't have a wife or any kids. He didn't have land that he owned. He could be anywhere he wanted."  

This passage is from Valdez is Coming and to me crystallizes what Dutch Leonard's writing was all about. An economy of words, no big ones, no over-explaining, yet enough there for you to read more into what's on the page. To get behind the eyes of Bob Valdez, to see the world as he sees it. Leonard worked hard on his books, achieving the balance between narrative and dialogue, which he used effectively and forcefully.

From Raylan:

  "How we did 'em in the ghet-to," Cuba said to the fool, "was well done, burn off that hair on his ass. I never cared for rat. You eat a sick one you go to bed with a touch of the bubonic plague."

"They're hardly any meat on him," Coover said. "You can chew his tiny bones. Hell, you can chew him up you take the skin off, it's the unhealthy part."

"Get it crispy," Cuba said, thinking: These hill folk gonna fuck up the job. He said to the Crowes, "I talk to Miss just now."

Coover said, "I keep forgettin her name. Lila?"

"Leela," Dickie said. "Like the song."

 

Simple, direct, effective.

Copyright © 2013 Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips' last novel was Warlord of Willow Ridge. He is co-editor and contributor to the recent anthology, Black Pulp, and is at work on Big Water, a graphic novel about designer water, privatization and murder. Please drop by his web site and say hello.


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