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Elmore Leonard, King of the 'Road'

By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 18, 2009

ROAD DOGS

By Elmore Leonard

Morrow. 262 pp. $26.99

At any given moment there are hundreds of men and women who, in the twilight of their careers, should be regarded as American national treasures. For example, the politician John Lewis, the musicians Willie Nelson and Ellis Marsalis and the novelist Larry McMurtry, to mention a few. To that list let us add 83-year-old Elmore Leonard, whose new book, "Road Dogs," is yet another gem in a career that has endured for more than half a century and given us 42 novels.

In the 1950s, Leonard started out writing westerns, some of which became notable movies: "Hombre," "Valdez Is Coming" and "3:10 to Yuma." When the western market dried up in the early 1970s, he turned to crime fiction. He was soon a cult favorite, widely admired for books like "Stick" and "LaBrava." His novels have not been blockbuster bestsellers, probably because they're too quirky for some readers, and he's reached his biggest audience on film. About 30 of his novels have been adapted for movies or television, including the popular "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Rum Punch" (filmed as "Jackie Brown").

He was one of the novelists who appeared in the 1970s with new ideas that expanded the boundaries of crime fiction past those set by Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald. Leonard's special contribution was that he found criminals amusing. He liked his crooks, and readers ended up rooting for them. His style was different, too. He was notable for his funky dialogue, and his basic rule of writing was revolutionary: Leave out the parts people will skip anyway, starting with descriptions of the weather and scenery.

In "Road Dogs," Leonard unites three characters from previous novels: Jack Foley, the handsome bank robber from "Out of Sight"; Cundo Rey, the Cuban hustler from "LaBrava"; and Dawn Navarro, the con artist and supposed psychic from "Riding the Rap." Foley (George Clooney in the film) has been serving in prison with Cundo -- they are "road dogs" who watch each other's back. Cundo, who has access to money, hires a lawyer who wins Jack's freedom. They soon meet in Venice, Calif., where Cundo's lover, Dawn, and his partner, Little Jimmy, are keeping an eye on the two homes he owns, worth a total of $6 million. Part of the problem is that macho Cundo persists in the delusion that sexy Dawn has been faithful to him during his eight years in prison.

The cast also includes Lou Adams, an FBI man who is stalking Foley, determined to arrest him and write a book about him; Tico, a gangbanger whom Adams hired to spy on Foley; Danny, a movie star who thinks her late husband's ghost is haunting her; and Cundo's bodyguard, a neo-Nazi skinhead.

None of these characters is to be trusted. Each is motivated by some mixture of greed and lust -- with a bit of stupidity often added -- and the novel unfolds as a masterpiece of duplicity. Dawn is hellbent to relieve Cundo of the valuable properties he owns. To that end, she is soon sleeping with three of the men (Cundo, Foley and Tico) and thinking about seducing Little Jimmy, who's gay, if he can be of use. Neither Cundo nor Foley, the two prison buddies, trusts the other, but each thinks the other can be useful. Foley is a charming rascal -- he's robbed 127 banks without ever carrying a gun -- but dangerous when aroused; he kills one man and puts another in traction.

Typically, Cundo's skinhead bodyguard at one point tells Foley, "You want, I can pop Cundo for you. It'll cost you, but I'll make you a deal." Danny, the widowed movie star, is the character closest to honesty, but she's an actress and thus duplicitous by nature: "She shined her eyes at him, wet with tears, he believed because it was expected of her, doing the scene." Foley likes Danny well enough, but he's also plotting with Dawn to parlay the widow's infatuation with him into a six-figure score.

Dawn comes close to stealing the novel. Among her quirks is her belief that "in a past life, an astonishing 3,500 years ago, [she] was Hapshepsut, daughter of a pharaoh and became a pharaoh herself." Leonard gives her some of the novel's best lines, such as this one, when she has two bodies (former lovers both) on ice in her basement freezer and a bodyguard at hand: "It occurred to Dawn, if she seduced Zorro she could get him to take the two bodies out to sea." When Foley asks her why a woman's navel is so appealing, she replies astutely, "I suppose because it's right in the middle of the playground."

The funniest scene in the book, however, involves the lovable swindler, Little Jimmy, who decides to go to Mass for the first time in 27 years and explains why to a priest: "I want to be on the safe side, confess to missing Mass fourteen hundred times because I'm going to dinner in honor of my boss. There is a possibility he could have the fortune-teller, who's preparing the food, poison me."

One hopes to see more of Jack Foley. He still pines for Karen Sisco, the deputy U.S. marshal who romanced and then shot him in "Out of Sight" (Jennifer Lopez in the movie), and she pines for him, too. There is clearly more fun to be had here, and Leonard, the hippest, funniest national treasure in sight, is the man to provide it.

Anderson's e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com.

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