The height of irony was devouring Elmore Leonard novels in prison.
If prisons produce better criminals, I was lucky to come out merely more sarcastic than when I went in. Elmore Leonard helped me get there – and taught me that exclamation points are worse than all the plagues in the Bible.
My family was, and still is, rather incisive, so when it came to the discovery of certain writers, I found authenticity in those who trafficked in quick comebacks and smartass remarks. Under the noses of bitchy nuns, schoolmate Chuck Miller and I traded copies of Don Pendleton’s pulp war-on-the-Mafia series, The Executioner. Pendleton’s stories were blunt and read similarly to how movies like The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle felt.
We were just kids then, gaining access to all this stuff through older brothers and neighborhood teenagers. Little did I know what Elmore Leonard would have in store for me. Compared to him, Don Pendleton might as well have been script-writer for Dragnet. Still, though Leonard would be the author to show me a celebration of the criminal spirit, I didn’t discover his novels until I myself was behind bars.
Reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment just prior to being sentenced was a philosophical turning point, the likes of which I hadn’t previously experienced. Devouring Leonard’s Maximum Bob while trying to drown out the sounds of cellblock idiocy was an comparable epiphany. Leonard’s criminals were very similar to those with whom I was housed: sarcastic, daring, flamboyant, smart, haphazard, mean, self-sabotaging, and double-crossing. They spoke of pistol-whipping, bad lawyers, booze, payoffs to cops, drive-bys, finders-keepers, knife fights, knife fights with women, snitches (both living and “dealt with”), hustling cash like there’s no tomorrow, and detectives, detectives, detectives! They were giant, fat, tired, old, young, short, stupid, one-armed, covered in ink, loud, and witty. (more…)